Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (Robert D. Webb, 1953) 🇺🇸

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef |

July 20, 2021

Today I'm going to talk to you about sponges. Not the sort that frenziedly scratch and scrub away at the dark corners of your bathrooms, but the inoffensive animal species that softly cover the world's ocean beds. Although they do, alas, end up marooned on the edge of an ordinary washbasin, left to their sad, utilitarian fate.

A radiant couple, their faces beaming with happiness, light up the poster's right-hand corner: thanks to the miraculous, allegedly exfoliating effect of these 100 % natural sponges? Or to the fire of love blazing in these two star-crossed souls? Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides was indeed inspired by Romeo and Juliette when he wrote this, dare I say it, spongy love story, transposed to the world of Florida's Tarpon Springs, the US sponge capital. It is the battleground for two clans at war on firm ground and under the waves: the Rhys, divers and fishermen of Irish descent, and the Greek American Petrakis. The Rhys are ready to go to any lengths to protect their sponge monopoly, as the Greeks find out to their cost. The situation worsens when their daughter Gwyneth (Terry Moore, barely more than five feet tall) falls madly in love with Tony, the Petrakis son (Robert Wagner, extravagantly Greek with his permed, dyed black hair). Following a series of idiotic games of seduction, the pint-sized heroine gives in to the handsome Adonis (as he calls himself) and grants him a fatal kiss, on tiptoe. Her family loots and burns their rivals' boat, threatening to kill the father (Gilbert Roland, smoothly swapping his Mexican accent for a Greek twang) by cutting off the oxygen supply to his diving suit. The two lovebirds do not let it affect them and continue with their forbidden romantic idyll. Unlike the Shakespearean tale, tragedy does not strike to darken their pretty faces and the two families are reconciled by their marriage.

While the “Tempest” (to extend the Shakespearean metaphor) on land is only relative and ends in sunshine, another, more tangible, storm is brewing underwater. The French and Belgian titles for the film, Tempête sous la Mer/Storm onder Zee, make it clear that the sea is anything but calm. The turbulence is located at the foot of a mysterious reef twelve miles from the coast. Tempted by a quick dive? The dreamlike notes of a harp tell us something bad is about to happen. As we plunge deeper, unfurling before our eyes are magnificent coral reefs, caves, shoals of fish – tarpons, bar jacks, manta rays, sharks and clownfish – transfigured by the panoramic format of the image (Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was the second film shot in CinemaScope). The seabed is carpeted in thousands of sponges, a paradise for the divers – but a paradise that comes at a cost! One of the sailors warns Tony's father that he should be wary of the reef which "never forgets", it "waits for you with open arms, ready to embrace you forever." But his warning falls on deaf ears. The intrepid clan leader has to set an example for his son. We watch as he follows a highly methodical ritual, devoutly assisted by his faithful crew, putting on his diving suit, pulling on his hat, taking a last pull on his cigarette and saying a prayer before screwing on his helmet in a last, fateful gesture. None of which keeps him alive. His feet are caught in a trap, he falls down the rock wall and doesn't rise back to the surface until it's too late. Despite being devastated by his father's death, Tony decides to follow in his footsteps and venture into the cursed spot in quest of sponges. Tony is the figure we see in the centre of the poster fighting off the giant octopus that looks like it has come straight out of the film Twenty Thousands Leagues Beneath the Sea based on Jules Verne's novel. This scene showing his heroic struggle – would Romeo have managed the same feat? – is followed by an underwater hand-to-hand combat with his enemy from the rival family, and his victory makes a man of him. The storm has passed, the monsters have been vanquished and the enemies pacified. So feel free to hang this poster wherever you like, even above your sink – it’s guaranteed not to give you nightmares!

Check out the French version of this article.