The Day of the Dolphin (1973) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

So long and thanks for all the fish! Slip on your scuba suit and brush up on your clicks and whistles, it’s time for the Day of the Dolphin.

The Day of the Dolphin is a film that is equal parts nature documentary, sci-fi film and spy thriller. And while it might not always combine those elements together in a streamlined way, the net outcome is fun film that may just change your mind about dolphins.

First Impressions

This is one of those trailers that may just spoil the entire movie. It opens with George C. Scott talking about how smart the dolphins are and taking some Q & A from an audience, when one lady asks about the dolphins speaking English. He feins confusion, but later we see the dolphins do just that. Some nefarious forces are on the lookout for his aquatic mammals as, the narrator says, he may have just trained his dolphins to kill the President of The United States. Then a large explosion happens. Is this really what happens? Let’s dive in and see.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

The Day of the Dolphin

The Day of the Dolphin title card.

The Fiction of The Film

The Day of the Dolphin opens with a monologue by Jake Terrell (George C. Scott) before an assembly from a Women’s Club, explaining about dolphin biology, their communicative skills, and how intelligent they are. He shows footage of a live dolphin birth in captivity at the Terrell Marine Center. This is Alpha, “Fa” for short, their main research animal. He takes questions from the audience about government mistreatment of the animals, and one lady claiming she heard a dolphin count to eight in English on TV. Terrell laughs and tells her it was a trick. Behind her sits a mysterious man, later introduced as Curtis Mahoney (Paul Sorvino), who is shown watching dolphins ability to discern shapes in a series of flashbacks during Jake’s speech.

Harold DeMilo (Fritz Weaver), the head of the Franklin Foundation–the benefactor for the Terrell Center, chastises Jake for spending so much money on his research. Later Curtis visits the Franklin Foundation with thinly veiled threats that he will make Terrell’s work public unless he can get an interview with them for his article. Harold takes a plane out to Jake’s private island to find out what’s really going on. Jake shares with him the four years of research, including audio of Fa counting to ten, in English. The Terrell Center has been working on teaching dolphins to speak to, and understand, humans. Harold asks Jake to do a favor for his “old friend” Curtis, and allow an interview.

The Day of the Dolphin

Jake spends as much time underwater with Alpha (“Fa”) as he does on land.

Realizing that they would eventually go public, Jake’s wife Maggie (Trish Van Devere) council’s him to accept the fact, let Curtis do his thing, and then he’ll leave. Jake doesn’t trust Curtis and takes steps to hide Fa, as well as a new addition, Beta, referred to as “Bea,” prior to the visit. The team of researchers try to pass off a third dolphin as Alpha, but Curtis catches them in a lie. That night a female employee notices a door handle turning as Curtis tries to break into the records room. Curtis leaves and the team put the Fa back in the tank, separating him from Bea. Fa hasn’t spoken since Bea has been around, but breaks down and tells Jake, “Fa want Bea.” So trust is restored. Curtis and Mr. Stone (Willie Meyers) return secretly to the other side of the island.

Jake calls a meeting on the island with the heads of the Franklin Foundation, which include Harold, Ben Wallingford (John Dehner), Mr. Schwinn (Severn Darden) and Mr. Dunhill (William Roerick). He explains and demonstrates Fa and Bea’s abilities to the assemblage. Wallingford doesn’t understand the concepts and tells the dolphins there’s a shark in their tank. Bea panics and leaps over the fence, but Fa chases her down and returns her safely. Jake is upset, but there’s no time to dwell on the issue as Harold has a press conference waiting for him on the mainland. Jake and Maggie depart by boat with Harold.

The Day of the Dolphin

The board of the Franklin Foundation made up of old, evil, white men.

Later that night, Terrell employee David (Jon Korkes) takes a mysterious call from Jake. The next day Jake gets a half-hearted apology from a secretary at the Franklin Foundation that the director is ill, and there will be no press conference. When they return they discover David missing, along with both dolphins. Curtis reveals himself, warning Jake of listening bugs around the island. He identifies David as an ex-con who is working for The Franklin Foundation, and is afraid that they intend to use the dolphins to assassinate the President.

The old men in charge are all on a yacht, while David shows the dolphins a magnetic mine (“the ball”) and teaches them to plant it on the boat with the Presidential flag. Fa runs away after a training mission when Wallingford, whom he already distrusts, lies that “Pa” (Jake) is on the boat. The men send Bea off on the mission. Fa returns to the Terrell’s island, and Jake instructs him to stop Bea. Fa intercepts Bea before she can lay the mine, and together they come back to the Franklin Foundation yacht, and leave it there, blowing up the men and their insidious plot. The dolphins return to Jake, but he sends them away angrily, knowing that it will be the only way they will end up surviving.

Fa loves Pa. Fa loves Ma.” – Alpha

The Day of the Dolphin

At the Franklin Foundation, the mysterious Curtis Mahoney visits with director Harold DeMilo.

History in the Making

The Day of the Dolphin stands as an outlier in the early 70s era of science-fiction film. In an era of dystopian, world-ending stories, a more intimate film about the rights of dolphins seems like a strange film. But the story here does bleed into the realm of paranoia and political thriller, as many other non-sci-fi films did, such as Three Days of the Condor or All The President’s Men.

It also stands apart by being a film directed and written by non-sci-fi individuals. Mike Nichols was an established director of drama and comedy when he made The Day of the Dolphin. In the previous seven years he made some of the best known films of the generation including his debut starring Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Dustin Hoffman stand-out, The Graduate, and Jack Nicholson’s Carnal Knowledge. Dolphin was his only foray into the realm of sci-fi with the remainder of his films ranging from mild drama to bawdy comedy. So what was he doing directing a film about talking dolphins?

The film was written by Buck Henry, who adapted the story from the 1967 novel “Un animal doué de raison,” by Robert Merle. Henry may be best known for writing The Graduate, and the spy-spoof TV series Get Smart. He was primarily a comedy writer, so again the question arises, what was he doing working on a film about talking dolphins?

The Day of the Dolphin

Maggie and Jake Terrell listen to updates from DeMilo about their funding, while relaxing on their private island sanctuary.


The answer to the above questions comes within the genre of the film. Science-fiction is a genre that allows creators of all types to experiment and play with the medium. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of great change in the actual world and in the world of science-fiction entertainment. The popularity of the genre attracted many creators known for other types of work, much like Nichols and Henry, to this genre, allowing them to give their own take on the tropes of sci-fi. When the right filmmaker and the right story came together, new sci-fi elements were born. Presumably, that’s what Nichols and Henry saw in the French story of a marine-biologist teaching dolphins to communicate, and why they chose to adapt it.

Along with the experimental aspect of creators working outside their comfort zone, The Day of the Dolphin also helped solidify a new type of sub-genre: the animal rights film. As with films, both science-fiction and not, that dealt with changes in philosophy about war, society and the environment, the animal rights film tried to change the audiences view on man’s relationship to animals. Animal related entertainment had been around for many decades with stars like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. “Wild” animals also featured in popular television series of the 60s, such as Flipper the dolphin, and Gentle Ben, a North American black bear. But these animals were all in service to the humans in their respective shows. And, there was little to no thought to the freedom of the animals. The Day of the Dolphin did more than that. Not only did it showcase the communication and sentience of the dolphins, but created a pathos for these characters that transcended their species. These dolphins were smart and had independent thought. They were treated as an equal with the human characters, for good or ill.

Without The Day of the Dolphin, other genre related animal rights films may have never been made. Just as this film made the case that dolphins were not just animals to be trained in circus stunts at marine parks, the 1987 Matthew Broderick film Project X, made a similar case for chimpanzees. In that film, these cute primates were being trained to fly planes and eventually be exposed to radioactivity and killed–all in the name of science. It echoed the theme that arose in many of Michael Crichton’s works, that just because we can do a thing, doesn’t mean we should. The realistic, and grounded nature, of both Project X and The Day of the Dolphin gave way to more surreal and extraterrestrial takes on the trope with films like 1988s Mac and Me, Harry and the Hendersons, Okja, and of course E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

The Day of the Dolphin

Jake plays various tapes of Alpha’s progress with phonemes to prove to DeMilo that their funding is not being wasted.

Societal Commentary

For many, the challenge of the 1960s and 70s dealt with increased awareness of social inequity. Human rights were suddenly water-cooler discussion. For many that was enough. But others, that had already grown accustomed to the thought of equity for humans, wanted to take it to the next step. Some looked at the planet and wanted to do right by Mother Earth, while another group wanted to raise awareness about animals.

Animals are very important in human lives. For many they are pets. For some they are their livelihood. But their existence has been intertwined with humanity forever. The Day of the Dolphin, and others like it, asks audiences to consider the wants and the desires of the animal before the needs of mankind. Just because we can do the thing, should we? George C. Scott’s character reflects on this at the end of the film. He was so excited that he could teach Fa how to speak, he did not concern himself with the fallout or implications of this work. Nichols and Henry portray the relationship between Jake & Maggie and Fa & Bea as one of parents struggling with their children. Jake waits out a tempermental Fa until he complies with the request. The film does humanize the animals in a way for audiences to relate to, considering it gives them the gift of speech, but it also attempts to show the dolphins as their own species, with needs, desires, and of course, rights.

The Day of the Dolphin

Fa and his newfound friend Bea enjoy each others company.

The Science in The Fiction

The Day of the Dolphin provides solid backstory on the communication and intelligence of dolphins. Form the opening lecture by Dr. Terrell to the continued interactions between man and animal, the film shows a very real look at what separates the dolphin from humanity, but also what makes it akin to us. Terrell mentions that not only can it communicate with an immediate neighbor, but it may also be able to carry on a conversation with another individual miles away. The study of dolphin and whale sonar has been something that the U.S. Navy has been looking since at least the late 50s. Human understanding of their communication methods has advanced the science of underwater traversal immeasurably.

Dolphins have been in service of man for many decades now. Besides performing in aquatic shows, demonstrating learned and innate behaviors for tourists, the military has been using and training dolphins as far back as the Vietnam War where their talents could prove useful in searching out underwater mines. While no reported encounters with bomb-carrying-dolphins exist, certainly the military must have contemplated the idea at one time or another. Dolphins continue to remain in service today, most in a rescue capacity, but other experiments may still be continuing.

Some other avenues for dolphins and other aquatic mammals may be that of intelligence gathering, or perhaps spies. In a recent article less than a year ago, a Beluga whale was spotted off the coast of Norway wearing a Go-Pro camera mount and a Russian harness. Just what is the use of such an animal? Is it a military or scientific mission that it was trained for? Because of course, dolphins and whales can capture footage of parts of the ocean that may be too costly or impossible to access for human beings. The debates continue today about the ethics involved with training and using animals in these capacities.

The Day of the Dolphin

Fa warns Bea that she is being used, and prevents her from attaching the mine to the President’s yacht.

The Final Frontier

The Day of the Dolphin is a fun and provocative film. It provides an honest look at the complexities and personalities of a non-human species in a way that provokes pathos and compassion. It also provides some interesting “what if” scenarios about putting those animals in service to humans for nefarious purposes. While George C. Scott does not seem like the sort of personality that would be a thoughtful marine scientist, his role is adequate in serving as the narrator to the events. The most notable role is that of Paul Sorvino, who is more known today as heavies and bad guys, as in The Rocketeer or Goodfellas. The film sets him up as the antagonist, but in a twist he’s the one person actually trying to help the dolphins–even if his interests may be in question. While not the typical sci-fi fare that many fans might crave on a Saturday, The Day of the Dolphin is an entertaining and thought provoking film that deserves a viewing at least once.

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