My all time favorite movie about sunken treasure hunters has got to be Peter Benchley’s The Deep (1977). Made just a few short years after his seminal Jaws (1975), it had a lot of similar elements including a great part for actor Robert Shaw. Nobody seemed to embody a Peter Benchley character better than he did. Starring Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset as a married couple that go treasure hunting in Bermuda and find an important shipwreck of gold and jewelry that just happens to be hidden underneath another WW II shipwreck full of medical supplies including thousands of vials of morphine. Just as they attempt to get to the treasure, they are threatened by drug runners who want the morphine for themselves.
The screenplay was based on the book by Benchley and written by him and Tracey Keenan Wynn, the son of Keenan Wynn, grandson of Ed Wynn. Benchley only wrote 3 screenplays based on his books, this one, Jaws and The Island (1980) with Michael Caine, but several of his other books would be adapted to movies or miniseries over the next couple of decades. He would, however write 2 TV movies, not based on any of his novels, The Great Houdini (1976) and Jeremiah of Jacob’s Neck (1976), which stars Keenan Wynn and is where Benchley met the son Tracey.
The Deep was directed by Peter Yates who made the seminal stunt movie, Bullitt (1968), which we discuss in a blog post here. The Deep has some of the best underwater cinematography that I have ever seen outside of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989). It was shot on location at an actual sunken ship! The shipwreck featured in the movie is actually the Royal Mail Ship RMS Rhone, which sank in 1867 off the coast of Salt and Peter Islands in the British Virgin Islands. The RMS Rhone broke into two pieces during the sinking. This movie was filmed at the bow section of the ship located about 75 feet underwater. The production shoot ran for 153 days, conducted 8,895 dives, spending 10,870 person hours underwater, and consumed 1,054,000 cubic feet of compressed air.
The picture was notable for its opening underwater diving sequence featuring Hollywood actress Jacqueline Bisset in a black bikini bottom and see-through wet t-shirt thus launching her as a Hollywood sex symbol and contributing big word-of-mouth for the movie, assisting with its box-office success. According to the book “Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood” (1996), producer Peter Guber allegedly once said, “That t-shirt made me a rich man!”. Though actors Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset’, for authenticity, did many of the underwater scenes themselves, the more dangerous sequences were still performed by stunt doubles.