Movie Review: The Silent World (1956)
Who hasn’t dreamed of moving freely, unshackled from the laws of gravity, among silent creatures, as fascinating as they are disturbing?
Simply by looking at the poster, I can already feel my pulse slow, my body and mind soothed by the deep blue which banishes the noise and fury of the outside world. In the muffled silence of the abyss, a diver harnessed to an underwater camera leads the way, followed by his noiseless escort of frogmen. In the time it takes to put on our flippers (and hang up our poster!) we’re rapidly drawn into the intoxicating world of the deep!
In 1956, the intrepid Captain Cousteau opened up the dizzying depths of the ocean to the public for the first time. He did so by making one of the very first oceanographic documentaries, winner of both a Palme d’or and an Oscar.
Accompanied by young film director Louis Malle (part of the New Wave movement) and his team of frogmen – not forgetting the undersea star Jojo the Grouper! – Cousteau unveiled the secrets of the sea bed, an inaccessible world at the time. On board the Calypso (his laboratory-cum-ship, as inseparable from the Captain as the eponymous nymph), he criss-crossed the seas, plumbing their depths down to 75 metres, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea (which matched his iconic hat!).
Equipped with the famous “regulator” (the scuba diving equipment co-invented by Cousteau), divers were no longer connected to the surface and could go and cavort freely with the fish. When I was still very young and in the habit of overdosing on Disney cartoons, I glanced in amusement at certain scenes, like the one featured on the poster where a diver is clinging to a turtle's shell. I only realised much later on that the poor creature was actually exhausted. My ecological sensibilities were also offended by the unregulated harvesting of coral and massacre of sharks who had come to finish off an accidentally wounded baby sperm whale. While the film was labelled “ingenuously disgusting” by a documentary critic, it is nevertheless important to replace it in its historical context: the 1950s, when nature was seen as an inexhaustible wellspring rather than a fragile ecosystem.
I will therefore refrain from judging, preferring to stick with the innocent wonderment of childhood. I will remember the Captain, that reluctant hero, as an adventurer and explorer who, at the end of his life, took an interest in ecological issues, convinced that “the sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope”.