OUT OF AN UNCHARTERED UNIVERSE – COMES AN EXPERIENCE OF UNEARTHLY BEAUTY…
There’s a scene early in The Silent World where famed naval explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s team of scuba divers sneak up on a Greek sponge diver. His technology is old, dangerous and clumsy compared to the open-circuit type that Cousteau helped develop in the 1940s. The scene is a chance to flaunt the progress of technology in a film that became widely talked-about for its innovative aspects, such as brilliant color cinematography that showed the beauty of a remarkable world that was rarely seen at that time. Cousteau has us hooked already in the opening where divers light flaming torches and head into this silent world, like astronauts.
Subject of controversy
In 1950, Cousteau turned a former minesweeper called Calypso into a research vessel. This was one year after leaving the French Navy, where he had had ample time to develop his interest in the vast oceans. He understood early on the possibilities of using film as a tool. He got to know a former political-science student called Louis Malle who had decided to drop out and study film instead; they formed a partnership where Malle agreed to act as a cameraman in the making of what would become The Silent World.
The documentary introduces us to Calypso and its crew, a jolly bunch of sailors and divers. Over the length of the film, the team travels to the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, where its members explore the depths, as well as the wreck of a ship that sank during World War II. That sequence in particular shows how this is not merely a scientific expedition; these people are also filmmakers who understand the need to entertain the audience and they have clearly planned the scene in a way that has us eagerly awaiting what they might find in that shadowy carcass on the bottom of the ocean floor.
Over the years, The Silent World has become a subject of controversy. To a modern audience, this film might even be hard to stomach at times as it clashes completely with the latter-day view of Cousteau as “Captain Planet”, the world’s most famous environmentalist. After all, this film shows him first blowing up a coral reef with dynamite because “there’s no other way” to explore its diverse species. Then, his ship crashes right into a baby whale that is so severely wounded that Calypso’s crew has to put it out of its misery. When the bleeding dead whale starts attracting sharks, a necessary part of the circle of life, Cousteau describes them as every sailor’s mortal enemy and the crew attacks the poor animals, slaughtering several of them in a sequence that had my blood boiling. A few scenes later, the crew encounters giant tortoises and treats them more like toys than animals.
So, what to think of a film like this a half century later? Well, Cousteau’s original purpose of The Silent World is still valid to a large degree – but also now as an example of how not to behave as a deep-sea explorer.
Still, as a piece of cinema, it is easy to see why this has become such a classic. Cousteau and his team are genuinely interested in showing the world not only what’s under the sea, but also the technology behind exploring it. It’s groundbreaking – and I’m sure James Cameron found it inspirational.
The Silent World 1956-France. 86 min. Color. Directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Louis Malle.
Trivia: Original title: Le monde du silence.
Oscar: Best Documentary. Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “I said [to Columbia], ‘Please, make at least a test in one little town.’ Finally they said, ‘Well OK, we’ll show it in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and see what happens.’ So I went to Kalamazoo. Well, of course at that time nobody knew me. So I went to Kalamazoo and started making lectures to every possible community group I could. Kids, the elderly, whatever. And finally the week came when they were testing my film. We had against us ‘The Caine Mutiny’. That was pretty tough, but we beat’ The Caine Mutiny’ in Kalamazoo, Michigan. So after that Columbia was obliged to distribute ‘The Silent World’, and they made a fortune on it. So this is to show you that distributors have always been against documentaries. They thought there was no chance for that film, and there was.” (Cousteau, IDA)