A few years ago my family and I spent some vacation time in Florida. One day, we visited the community of Tarpon Springs, right on the gulf of Mexico. It was largely settled by Greeks and it’s primary industry is sponge fishing. There’s even a unique little roadside attraction there known as Spongeorama. I had no idea when I began watching today’s film, 1953’s “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef,” that sponge fishing was going to be at the center of it. But within just a few seconds of starting the film, I quickly recognized the main street of Tarpon Springs.
The film centers on the Petrakis family, proud sponge fishing Greeks working in Tarpon Springs. As the film opens, Mike (Gilbert Roland), his son Tony (Robert Wagner), and their crew have just returned from a disappointing excursion. They just aren’t bringing in enough sponges to make a living, not to mention pay back Demetrius Sofetes (Jacques Aubuchon), who has lent them much of their equipment. Meanwhile, they learn that another boat based in Tarpon has brought in a record catch by fishing at the dangerous 12-Mile Reef.
But Mike soon begins to think that things will be looking up for him and his crew after Tony wins a special diving competition. This is where the priests toss a cross into the water which the young men dive for. Finding the cross earns the family a special blessing before their next journey, and gives Tony the courage to finally ask his father to allow him the chance to do the diving. But Mike isn’t ready to turn that over to his son.
Since Mike has not been having good luck around Tarpon Springs, he decides to take his boat further south, toward Key West. Now, whereas the Greeks settled Tarpon, the English settled Key West, and it is an unwritten rule that those waters are the turf of the “Conchs” (that’s what the Key West sponge fishers are called). Still, Mike and crew head there and end up with quite a catch. All is going well until a small boat approaches while Mike is beneath the water. The boat seems harmless at first, but it turns out to be two Conchs, Arnold Dix (Peter Graves) and Griff Rhys (Harry Carey Jr), armed with a shotgun. They snag Mike’s air hose and threaten to cut it if the Greeks don’t turn over their catch.
Now the Greeks have no intention of taking this sitting down. They head for Key West and have a run-in with the Conch’s at a local bar. That’s where Tony first meets Gwyneth (Terry Moore), Griff’s sister and the girl Arnold wants to marry. The two are quickly fascinated with each other and manage to sneak off to flirt with each other at the park. Tony’s pop and Arnold soon catch up, though, and a fight breaks out.
Having made their point, the Petrakis family head out again, this time staying away from Conch waters. Again, they manage a healthy catch. However, disaster strikes when Mike surfaces too quickly and ends up with a case of the bends. They head back to Key West to seek medical assistance, but it’s too late to save Mike. As Tony heads off with Gwyneth to make arrangements for the body, Arnold and Griff come back into shore…seeing what they think is the Greek’s haul from their waters, once again. They loot the boat, and others join in. When Tony’s elderly shipmates attempt to defend the boat, a fight, and soon a fire, break out. The ship is destroyed. Now, Tony and Gwyneth decided to head back to Tarpon Springs. It’s up to him now to lead the family, but her family are in pursuit. The only choice is to bring in a great catch…but they’ll need to head to the dreaded 12-Mile Reef to do it.
So…does the story bring any other classic love story to mind. Say something by Mr. Shakespeare? You better believe it! “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” has “Romeo and Juliet” written all over it. And, I’ve gotta say, it does a pretty effective job! Gangs of rival sponge fishers certainly wouldn’t have been my first thought for updating the classic story, but it turns out to be a very intriguing premise. First of all, the film does a very good job of showing what sponge fishing is all about. From the heavy diving equipment to the strings of sponges hanging from the ship’s mast. There’s also a lot of interesting material about the culture of the Greeks who chose this life. The whole Catholic diving ritual sequence is very unique glimpse at this group of people.
The cast does a fine job. I really enjoyed Gilbert Roland as Mike. He’s a man steeped in tradition, but also frustrated with the struggle of the sponge fishing life, and unwilling to completely subject his son to the dangers he faces as the diver. Robert Wagner is also quite good as Tony, even if he does come across as a bit too polished for someone working on a run-down boat. But it’s Peter Graves who really gets the juiciest part. Arnold isn’t just some angry ex-boyfriend, he’s a real jerk who’s more the willing to cause great harm to those who stand in his way. Graves makes a great bad guy.
“Beneath the 12-MIle Reef” was the third film made in CinemaScope. It’s photography is still quite impressive, even on the small screen, though I fear some of the power of it’s underwater sequences may have been lost to the ages. But there is still a lot to enjoy about this film, both visually and dramatically. It takes the viewer deep into a unique culture, one which is most likely quite foreign to most of the members of the audience. But we connect with it because of it’s focus on family, tradition, hard work, rivalry…and, oh yeah, lots and lots of sponges.