MARVEL GOES DEEP: The 1977 Hit THE DEEP and Its Solid Comics Adaptation

REEL RETRO CINEMA: The Nick Nolte/Jacqueline Bisset adventure was released 47 years ago, on June 17, 1977…


In the wake of the massive, record-breaking box office success of 1975’s Jaws, Hollywood was thirsty for another book from author Peter Benchley that they could spin into cinematic gold. Before Benchley’s The Deep was even published, Columbia Pictures snapped up the rights and hired him to write the screenplay. Soon after, producer Peter Guber left Columbia, formed his own production company, and set up The Deep as its first film, hiring writers Tracy Keenan Wynn and Tom Mankiewicz (whose next project would be a little thing called Superman: The Movie) to rewrite Benchley’s initial pass.

Director Peter Yates (he of one of the most diverse filmographies in the history of Hollywood—1968’s Bullitt, 1973’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1979’s Breaking Away, 1983’s Krull) hired Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset as the leads, as well as Robert Shaw, making the connection to Jaws even more explicit. Also more explicit was this film’s sexual content, something almost entirely missing from Jaws (unless you have a thing for Mayor Vaughn).

Nolte and Bisset play David and Gail, a couple on vacation in Bermuda. While scuba diving, they discover some items near a shipwreck, including a gold medallion and a glass ampoule containing a mysterious liquid. After an unknown sea creature attacks Gail, they get back and consult a local treasure hunter named Romer Treece (Shaw) to identify the items. Unbeknownst to them, this attracts the attention of Henri “Clouche” Bondurant (Louis Gossett Jr.), a drug kingpin who confronts the couple at a restaurant and asks to buy the glass vial, which David denies having.

Treece learns that the wreck is a WWII ship called Goliath, which is off-limits to divers because of potentially still-live explosives. Even more interestingly, there is another wreck below Goliath, a Spanish ship that could contain great treasure. While Treece makes a deal with Clouche to retrieve the vials—now identified as containing morphine—Clouche begins to terrorize the couple, including trying to drive them off the road and then kidnapping them. While Clouche’s goons search David’s person for the vial, they go out of their way to search every inch of Gail, forcing David to helplessly watch at knifepoint.

The trio makes several trips down to the Goliath to collect the morphine, encountering a huge moray eel that lurks around the ship. Joining them on the mission is the appropriately named Coffin (Eli Wallach), the only survivor of Goliath. But his loyalties are suspect, and he stands and does nothing when a boat of Clouche’s men come by and dump buckets of chum into the water near David, Gail, and Romer, attracting hungry sharks. Later, while Gail is home alone, Clouche sends a few of his men, dressed in voodoo garb, to break in and assault Gail, rending her flesh with bloody chicken claws. She tells David she wants to go home, but he refuses, the allure of adventure and treasure being too strong.

Eventually, Gail relents when Treece discovers what the Spanish treasure is — gold and pearls connected to the King of Spain. And if he can prove that, then the items are worth a fortune. Clouche and his men make one final attempt at getting the treasure for themselves, leading to a fatal confrontation at the bottom of the sea.

The Deep was scheduled for release on June 17, 1977, and producer Guber bet big that the combo of Jaws (via Shaw and Benchley) and sex (via Bisset) would make for a blockbuster. He spent millions on marketing, running ads on TV, and in print via men’s magazines and comic books. For the former, he grabbed a still of Bisset in her wet t-shirt and used it as the main image, which forced her to sue to have it discontinued. (They eventually settled on a more traditional poster, albeit one that vaguely and shrewdly resembles the iconic Jaws design.)

An unchastened Guber (“That t-shirt made me a rich man!”, he said later) saw his efforts pay off, as The Deep was a huge hit at the box office, outdrawing its competition, The Exorcist II, which everyone thought would be a blockbuster. The Deep went on to become the eighth highest-grossing film of the year.

My Dad, my sister, and I were part of that box office haul; my Dad assuming its PG rating meant it was safe for his 6-year-old son. And for the most part, it was—The Deep isn’t nearly as terrifying as Jaws (and, to be fair, it’s not trying to be) and it was probably way too talky for someone at that age to really hook into. Sure, the undersea photography is glorious (thanks mostly to underwater cinematographer Al Giddings, who developed new technology to provide clearer undersea lighting), the giant moray eel is fearsome, and there are some solid action scenes.

What I remembered most from The Deep, however, took place on land—the “voodoo” attack on Bisset. As a kid, I was so scared of the intensity and just general weirdness of the scene (chicken claws drenched in blood?) that it lingered in my memory for years, and in the space between seeing it in theaters and home video in the late 1980s, I tended to think of The Deep as a horror film, not an undersea adventure thriller. Watching the movie again today, the repeated, lurid focus on Bisset’s physique feels a bit unseemly. Sure, it’s an A budget movie with big movie stars, but at times The Deep wants to deliver some grindhouse-like thrills, and the tones don’t always match.

I mentioned earlier that The Deep ran ads in comic books—it went a step further than that, when Marvel released its own one-shot The Deep adaptation, written by Doug Moench with art by Carmine Infantino and Sonny Trinidad. The comic varies greatly from the movie right from page one, starting in 1943 and showing us Coffin on Goliath just as it crashes. We then get a beautiful, dialogue-free sequence (an attempt to replicate the film’s completely silent first eight minutes) as David and Gail find the wreck.

After a few very talky pages, penciller Infantino gets to let it rip a bit during fight scenes between David, Romer, and Clouche’s men as they sail through the air, heedless of gravity, which was an Infantino trademark. Not surprisingly, the attack on Gail is removed entirely, making more room for undersea fights between the giant moray eel and other sea creatures.

Without a giant shark to highlight (as Marvel would a year later with its adaptation of Jaws 2), The Deep as a comic book is somewhat satisfying—I don’t remember ever seeing it on the stands at the time, and I actually didn’t know it existed at all until many years later. Having been scared by the movie, I might have been too, uh, chicken to buy the comic even if I had seen it.

Yates must have shot a lot of footage for The Deep—when it was shown on TV in 1980, it was broadcast over two nights and included 53 minutes of additional footage, only some of which made it onto home video. One of the scenes shown was the flashback with Goliath, so it was clearly the screenplay or at least a very early cut of the movie that Marvel and Moench were working from. This scene also suggests the barely-alive Coffin (heh) is found on the beach by a young Romer Treece, giving these characters a history together only hinted at in the final film.

Marvel, for the most part, would stop with the movie one-shots, preferring to do all of their film adaptations in the pages of Marvel Super Special magazine, whose higher quality paper and coloring process could give the whole venture a little more Hollywood sheen. As a movie, The Deep was able to ride Jaws’ sharktails to deliver a genuine box office hit, even if it was not to that scale. It remains a solid (liquid?) adventure thriller, filled with genuine movie stars and some beautiful underwater scenes. If, after watching Jaws for the millionth time this July 4th (like I will do), you could do a lot worse than make The Deep the second feature.


–REEL RETRO CINEMA — KRULL: The Enduring Legacy of an ’80s Cult Favorite. Click here.

— REEL RETRO CINEMA — JAWS 2. Click here.

Rob Kelly is a podcaster, writer, and film historian. He is the host of podcasts such as Fade Out, TreasuryCast, and M*A*S*HCast.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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1 Comment

  1. Amazing pics of Jacqueline Bisset there . . .

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