CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
One of the odder entries in the Sci-fi Apocalypse category is Michael Cacoyannis’ 1967 film “The Day the Fish Came Out.” It drew its inspiration from an actual mini-apocalypse, a mid-air collision between an Air Force bomber and a re-fueling plane, resulting in the bomber’s nuclear payload being ejected over the Spanish countryside. Rather than opting to fictionalize this incident, Cacoyannis chose to tell of a future apocalypse, set not in Spain but in his native Greece, and using satire rather than outrage to score his points.
Cacoyannis presents us with the isle of Karos, a sleepy little place where the event of the day seems to be the outrageously attired English lady who walks her dog and draws envious and condemnatory stares from the villagers. But all of that changes when a bomber crashes offshore, after jettisoning its payload on a wild, largely uninhabited portion of the island. So far this may sound like a fairly straight adaptation of the Palomares incident, but here is where Cacoyannis introduces his element of doomsday science-fiction, for this bomber, in addition to carrying two nuclear weapons, carries an even deadlier bio-chemical weapon known only as “Q.”
Now the narrative fragments with one portion becoming a bickering “odd couple” tale of the bomber’s hapless pilot (Colin Blakely) and navigator (Tom Courtenay) who have made landfall on Karos in nothing but their BVDs and the other, a sort of conspiracy thriller as an unnamed government agency dispatches its top fixer, Elias (Sam Wanamaker), and his team to the island to find and recover the weapons without the islanders being any the wiser. To carry off the scheme Elias claims to be a developer looking to establish Karos as a tourist destination. A clever plan, except that the islanders believe him and in no time at all the mayor of the island’s sole town is on the phone to the Tourism minister in Athens with the result that Karos gets itself splashed all over the papers as the new must-see destination.
As if this isn’t bother enough for Elias and his team to deal with, the locals he has hired to build a road to the future “hotel site” uncover an ancient sculpture of a beautiful youth–the perfect mascot for a tourist mecca, and now a team of archeologists descends upon Karos as well, led by the suspicious Mr. French (Tom Klunis) who seems to doubt Elias’ claims of being a property developer. But the biggest stone in Elias’ shoe is not the professor, but his thoroughly liberated assistant, Electra Brown (Candace Bergen) who promptly initiates a flirtatious relation with the handsomest of Elias’ young officers, Peter (Ian Ogilvy).
Elias locates the two bombs, but the all-important “Q” has gone missing. By the time the team, with an unwitting assist from Electra and Peter, realize that a goatherd has found the weapon and dragged it to his cabin, believing the heavy metal box to contain vast riches they are too late to prevent an impending catastrophe. For when the desperate islander finally gets it open, using acid stolen from the archeologists, he discovers nothing but strange purplish eggs. Disgusted he and his wife hurl the container into the sea and dispose of the remaining eggs by dropping them into the island’s reservoir. Elias, knowing nothing of this, believes “Q” to have fallen into the depths, where is should be harmless as long as its stronger-than-steel casing is intact.
By now Karos is overrun by wealthy tourists gorging themselves on food and engaging in orgiastic dances by the sea. The pilot, posing as a beggar, has solicited enough funds to call his base and report his plane’s mishap–this after spending much of the film dodging Elias and his team, who the pilot believes to be wealthy hedonists. Elias and his men are preparing to depart Karos, when some the tourists notice waves of dead fish washing ashore. Elias understands at once what has happened and as he and his team scramble to don their protective suits–not realizing that they are already dead, having drunk the contaminated water from the reservoir–the pilot tries frantically to make contact with them, while the navigator, who had grown increasing disillusioned, gorges himself on the food that the tourists had abandoned to view the dead fish. Still unaware of what has happened to them, the beautiful people again take up their wild dancing while a voice on the town’s PA system vainly pleads for their attention and the navigator laughs hysterically as he settles down to his final supper.
Now that I have provided a much more complete synopsis than you’ll find in the film’s official pressbook, it’s time for me to explain my enthusiasm for Cacoyannis’ “odd man film”–for other than “Zorba the Greek” he’s best known for his somber adaptations of classical Greek tragedies and I believe that this was his sole venture into the realm of science-fiction. While it’s true that there are risible elements in the film–most notably the “futuristic” tourist attire that Elias and his team sport–it’s worth recalling that the film is meant as a satire. Even so, it’s no more risible than the sandals and pepla worn by men of the future in the lauded “Things to Come,” and in this film those over-the-top glad rags serve a purpose in that the film is partially about excess. When those equally gaudy tourists arrive and start gyrating to that dance craze of the future known as “The Jet,” nothing seems that out of place. The outsized self-regard of the wealthy visitors is at one with the out-sized greed of the islanders who see only money pouring into their pockets.
As with much of satire, deception and miscommunication also play a role. Had the authorities chosen to admit at once that there was a mishap, they could easily have evacuated the island’s hundred or so inhabitants and searched in peace. Had Elias and his men been in uniform, the know-it-all pilot would not have initially mistaken them as a bunch of degenerates. He could have made himself known and told them where “Q” could at least approximately be found. (Ironic then that at the film climax his frantic efforts to reveal himself as the sunken bomber’s pilot is ignored because he himself is dressed–in clothes stolen off of a farmer’s scarecrow–as a beggar.)
I liked the fact that we never learn much about “Q” and its capabilities. When finally let loose by the goatherd and his wife, will it spell the end of life on Karos, or will it bring doom to all the oceans of the world? When Electra finally realizes that Peter’s job has been to keep her out of the way of Elias’ men, she flounces off on the arm of a handsome Italian tourist. But has Electra, whose carelessness allowed that bottle of powerful acid–the key to “Q”–to be stolen by the goatherd, really escaped? True she has left Karos, but just how many fish will come out from how many seas?
Lastly, I want to call attention to the work of the famed composer Mikis Theodorakis. “The Jet” plays its own role in the story–the tourists can’t get enough of it, breaking into it at the drop of a hat–so it has to be convincing as an invitation to unbridled excess. Its driving, propulsive rhythms, somewhat reminiscent of the score Theodorakis wrote for Costa-Gavras’ “Z,” certainly lend a sense of urgency to the final moments of the film when the tourists’ literally dance at their own funeral while the military flees and the navigator, finally left to himself, feasts. The hedonism of the tourists, the expertise of Elias and his crew, the devotion to duty of the pilot and his navigator all arrive at the same dead end because one desperately poor peasant dreamed of untold riches locked in a silver chest.