The Flickers: Beneath the 12-Mile Reef

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953)

Starring Gilbert Roland, Robert Wagner, Terry Moore, Richard Boone, J. Carrol Naish, Peter Graves, Jay Novello and Harry Carey, Jr. Directed by Robert D. Webb. From 20th-Century Fox.

All images © 20th Century-Fox

The Greek Petrakis family are sponge fishers who live in Tarpon Springs and work off the west coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s pop Michael (Roland), his son, Tony (Wagner) and dear family friend, Socrates Houlis (Naish). Mike is the diver; he’s the one who dons the suit and takes his rake down to the sea floor to collect the sponges but excitable Tony is ready to take his turn.

Socrates (Naish) helps Mike (Roland) get ready to dive. Tony (Wagner) makes his case for diving himself.

At the close of another fruitless trip, the Greeks come back to shore where all the spongers sell their wares. Not having many sponges to sell, all the Greeks face when they return to the dock is their creditors. Mike begins to formulate a plan to reverse their fortunes – the family will cross a boundary of sorts and dive for sponges in the Glades. This area, though, is the domain of the Conchs. The prominent family in this neck of the woods is the Rhys family lead by Thomas Rhys (Boone) and his sons including, Griff (Carey, Jr.) and daughter, Gwyneth (Moore) who is being actively courted by another member of the crew, Arnold (Graves).

Thomas Rhys (Boone) with his confiscated sponges.

When Thomas and crew catch the Greeks out of their neighbourhood, they confiscate the sponges they have found and hit the town to celebrate. The Greeks show up in an attempt to get their sponges back. This is not going to happen though, especially when Tony and Arnold fight over Gwyneth. The two families reach detente and now Mike knows he has no choice; he must dive the dangerous 12-Mile Reef. While he’s diving, though, he gets caught up and eventually has to ascend to the surface but he does so too quickly, getting an excruciating case of the bends. His family rushes him to the nearest doctor – in Key West, Conch territory – but it is to no avail and Michael dies. Thomas Rhys is genuinely sorry for Tony’s loss and tells him so. At the same time, Arnold is cruising into port and notices the Greek’s boat with another load of sponges. While he’s looting the Greeks’ boat, it catches fire and burns.

Tony tells Thomas about his father dying and his boat catching fire. Thomas realizes that Arnold (Graves, far left) has crossed a line by looting the Greeks a second time and torching the boat. Rhys respected the Greek pater and is livid. Below, Gwyneth (Moore) realizes what a rat Arnold is. Well-crafted scene.

When Tony finds out about his boat, he’s enraged and goes to the Rhys house. Thomas promises restitution but hot-headed Arnold waits outside and beats on Tony. Gwyneth stows Tony on her father’s boat and sails off to a remote key to recuperate. While there, the two bond and plan to earn their start in life by taking the boat and diving the 12-Mile Reef. With Gwyneth, Tony is beginning to feel and think like a man. Now can he act like a man, find his own bravery and honour his father in the process?

The state of Florida has a rich cultural heritage and the history of the Sunshine State is rife with fascinating stories. So much so that the Florida Historical Society is able to offer a weekly podcast that tells the stories of the state’s past. One day while I was listening, they offered a piece about the Greeks in the Gulf coast city of Tarpon Springs.

“Look at the tarpon spring!”, said Mrs. Boyer, an early settler to the area from South Carolina, in about 1876 and the town was so christened. Only they weren’t tarpon she saw but mullet. Just as well; “Mullet Springs”? Almost immediately, the sponging business was born and whites from Key West worked next to blacks from the Bahamas pulling the valuable sponges off the ocean floor. Early in the 20th century, an advanced technique of sponge diving was introduced by the many Greeks that began to flood the area. Today in Tarpon Springs, the old school methods are still employed and the city maintains its Greek identity; it has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the US.

Interesting home movie shot by a resident of Tarpon Springs that captures the cast behind the scenes. Courtesy

Here is a case where Hollywood got it right; or almost, anyways. As right as can be expected from La La Land in the Fifties. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was announced in September of ’52 and it became the third film shot in CinemaScope. The movie was made by Fox, helmed at the time by Greek-American Spyros Skouras and A.I. Bezzerides was tapped to write the script. Bezzerides was born in Turkey to a Greek father and an Armenian mother. So far so good; a Greek runs the studio and a Greek is writing the script. Bezzerides also has other Florida connections as well as a relationship with film noir. His first novel was 1938’s The Long Haul that was eventually turned into They Drive By Night (1940), a film that co-starred Ann Sheridan who would star in Juke Girl (1942), a movie set in Florida and Bezzerides’ first script. He would then work on the scripts for Action in the North Atlantic (1943), On Dangerous Ground , a great “winter” noir from ’51 and A Bullet for Joey (1955), a noir set in Montreal. Bezzerides then gained a sort of infamy with his “apocalyptic, atomic-age paranoia” script for Kiss Me Deadly (1955). He then moved into television and made it to 98, passing in 2007.

Our director is Robert D. Webb, a man I told you about in my review of Elvis Presley’s first film, Love Me Tender (1956), a film on which Webb served as director. Check that piece out here.

One of the many depictions of the streets of Tarpon Springs, circa 1953. Head of a family of Greek fishermen, Gilbert Roland inspects a sponge after docking back in town. L to R: Angela Clarke as Mama, Roland, Naish, RJ, Gloria Gordon as sister Peggy Petrakis and Jacques Aubuchon as money-lender and pariah, Demetrios Sofotes.

Gilbert Roland was born Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Handsome Roland began his career in 1923 and was often cast as the Latin lover. He can be seen in She Done Him Wrong (1933) and The Sea Hawk (1940). He married Constance Bennett in 1941 and they had two daughters before divorcing in ’45. Gilbert served in World War 2 in the US Army Air Corps. Later, Roland added panache to films like The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) before playing the Greek in our film. He would continue on appearing in films – over 100 in total – like Cheyenne Autumn (1964) before wrapping his film career in 1982. He also acted on TV – including an episode of Hart to Hart with is 12-Mile Reef co-star, Robert Wagner.

Robert John Wagner is, as of this writing, one of the last remaining stars of the golden era. I have talked about RJ a few times before in these pages. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was his first lead role and while a black-haired, curly-mopped Greek he ain’t, he does well. Terry Moore I have also talked about here. She, like Wagner, is still with us, as of this writing. Terry is 24 years old here and was just coming into her own, having garnered an Oscar nomination for her previous role in Come Back, Little Sheba the year before.

Big Richard Boone may be best remembered for playing Paladin on television’s Have Gun – Will Travel from 1957 to ’63. Boone was born in LA, a descendant of the brother of Daniel Boone, and saw combat with the Navy in the Pacific during WW2. Boone became one of those actors who lends a wonderful presence to any film but never gained real stardom for any one movie role. He had appeared earlier in The Robe (1953) which had been the first CinemaScope production and after our film he made the 1954 film version of Dragnet with his friend, Jack Webb. He later returned to the western with visible roles in The Alamo (1960), Rio Conchos, Jim Brown‘s debut in 1964 and Hombre with Paul Newman. He would join John Wayne in Big Jake (1971) and The Shootist (1976) and Mitchum in The Big Sleep (1978). He actually starred in 5 TV shows including Have Gun and almost starred in a sixth. As I reported in my article on Jack Lord, the role of Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O was initially offered to Boone who had settled at this point in Hawaii and who suggested the show’s setting change to the islands from California. After living for a time in Honolulu, Boone and his family moved to St. Augustine, Florida where he died of throat cancer in 1981. He was 63.

The Greeks confront the Conchs at the local watering hole. Harry Carey, Jr. as Griff Rhys, son of Boone’s Thomas Rhys, second from left.

One of the very first films I ever taped off TV when I was a kid was House of Frankenstein (1944) and therefore, ever since the beginning, I have known the face of J. Carrol Naish. An Irishman from NYC, Naish enjoyed a long career portraying characters of many races in nearly 200 films. He got his start in What Price Glory in 1926 as “French soldier” and would go on to play characters with names such as Sun Yat Ming, Tony Rocco, Pedro, Ramon Salvadore, Trotsky, Arab slave dealer, Subahdar-Major Puran Singh, Japanese kitchen overseer, John, Count of Luxembourg, Chief Sitting Bull (twice) and…Mike Clarke. Add to that the Greek sponge fisherman in our film and Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the 1957-58 television version. I love him for the wonderful short subject Star in the Night and the radio show Life With Luigi. No slouch, Naish was nominated twice for Oscars.

Minneapolis-born Peter Graves was the brother of James Arness. He was decorated for service in the US Army Air Forces in World War 2 and then moved into films making his mark early with a meaty role in 1953’s Stalag 17. After our film he gravitated to TV starring in two series, each little known; the western Fury and a short-lived British/Australian program called Whiplash, another western in which Peter’s character used a bullwhip instead of a gun. He did show up in The Night of the Hunter (1955) but is best known for playing Jim Phelps on Mission: Impossible from 1967 to 1973 and again in the show’s revival in 1988. Graves won a Golden Globe for Mission: Impossible and an Emmy for hosting Biography. He and his wife of 60 years had three daughters. Graves died in 2010, four days shy of his 84th birthday.

The film depicts the Epiphany celebrations accurately.

Jay Novello’s is a face you’ve seen a hundred times in movies and TV and you’ve heard his voice on radio shows. I know him for his work with Presley in Harum Scarum (1965); he stopped making movies shortly after. Harry Carey, Jr. followed his father into acting and became part of the John Ford Stock Company, appearing in many of Ford’s films and later writing a book about his experiences working in many legendary westerns. Junior served in the US Navy during World War 2 and married Paul Fix’s daughter. The two were wed for over fifty years, until Junior’s death at 91 in 2012.

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef has sadly fallen into the public domain. Bad because the prints you are liable to find are poor as are the DVDs; mine is terrible. Good, though, because the film is available for viewing and download almost anywhere; check YouTube and the Internet Archive.

Once you get past RJ playing a Greek and his black, curly hair, this is a fun film. It is perhaps most enjoyable due to the location shoot in Tarpon Springs. And as I’ve mentioned, the film contains a measure of authenticity as it does its best to depict an actual community and the very real industry of sponge fishing. The Epiphany celebration and the young men diving for the cross is still an annual event in Tarpon Springs.

One can also enjoy the development of Tony and Gwyneth’s relationship; Moore particularly is fun to watch as she is so vivacious. Graves as Arnold is appropriately menacing and the cause of much of the trouble. I can appreciate Boone’s character’s condolences when Tony’s pop dies and his disapproval of Arnold’s theft of the Greek’s sponges; it shows there is respect between the two older men. The plot also does well in depicting the women left behind on shore while the men go out for long periods of time cheating death on the ocean floor.

All in all, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is a well-photographed, outdoorsy underwater adventure film that has many fine practical locations – including indoor settings. Here then is another good way to take a little vacation without ever leaving your couch.



  1. Looks like a great movie.  I put it my Amazon Prime queue. I see that Tubi has it too. Wish I had time to watch all these wonderful old movies. They’re the best for sure. Thanks,Patty

    • I really like the film. Shame that there are few quality copies of it out there to buy – of course it’s nice that it’s easy to view just about anywhere on the internet. Also, no one seems to know or care too much about it. I love the film. Fascinating for its cultural depictions and for the location shooting.

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