Jacques Cousteau’s “The Silent World”

In this artistic and technological breakthrough -- today almost impossible to find -- the sinewy French explorer took us all into unknown depths.

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Jacques Cousteau's "The Silent World"

My father used to take me into the ocean off the New Jersey shore, coaxing me out farther and farther from the beach where I felt comfortable, where the weary ends of the waves lapped gently at my toes.

I was 6 or 7 and the murky Atlantic Ocean, I was quite certain, was full of Dangerous Things. If a rubbery piece of seaweed brushed against my side, I was about to be slimed to death. Underfoot were hideous, prehistoric horseshoe crabs with their hard, chitinous shells and long tail-spines that seemed as sharp as Ginsu knives. Farther out, where the waves were breaking, there were flotillas of icky, blood-red jellyfish, trailing tendrils that I was convinced were injecting me with paralyzing neurotoxins. And of course Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” had recently been released. Although my parents didn’t let me see it, there was enough talk of the movie around that I knew this much: Sharks liked to eat people, especially little boys. And they lived in the ocean.

Bottom line: The ocean scared the piss out of me. Sometimes literally. But as is often the case with these things, it fascinated me too.

This was the era of ABC’s documentary series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” and the funny little man with the funny little accent and the funny little red cap was showing me, via the safety of the television screen, what I dreaded seeing in person: sharks gathering for a feeding frenzy, viciously clawed crabs scuttling sideways across the ocean bottom, creepy translucent critters hanging in water so deep that the sun never penetrated their inky universe.

Cousteau’s television documentaries transfixed me with horror and wonder. I remember sleek, sharp-teethed barracudas cutting through the water like torpedoes; ugly puffer fish that suddenly inflated to twice their size and, like porcupines, protruded fearsome spikes all around their bodies when threatened; forests of dazzling Technicolor coral and underwater flora; colonies of wacky, awkward penguins that slipped from their ice floes into the freezing Antarctic waters where they became graceful underwater dancers; and the slow-motion descent of whale tails crashing mightily into the surf. Most captivating (and simultaneously repugnant) of all, I remember sharks with squat rectangular heads, their queer, prehistoric eyes fixed to the furthest extremes of that deformity: hammerheads, so bizarre in appearance they looked like they belonged on a planet where there had never been any land at all.



Cousteau showed me a world of life more shocking and entrancing than anything imagination might conjure. When he died at the age of 87, on June 25, 1997, I realized I had lost perhaps the only real hero I had ever had. A flawed hero, I later learned, but a hero nevertheless. As the fifth anniversary of his death approached, I wanted to find some way to honor him. I learned that before Cousteau ever became popular for his documentary films, he had written a best-selling book, “The Silent World” (1953), which chronicled the early days of his underwater adventures.

In the midst of World War II, Cousteau and Émile Gagnan, a Parisian engineer, invented and successfully tested the first aqualung or SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), which became the key to the modern age of underwater exploration. In Cousteau’s book, he describes his first scuba dive, in the Mediterranean waters off the French Riviera in June 1943:

“At night I had often had visions of flying by extending my arms as wings. Now I flew without wings … I thought of the helmet diver arriving where I was on his ponderous boots and struggling to walk a few yards, obsessed with his umbilici and his head imprisoned in copper. On skin dives I had seen him leaning dangerously forward to make a step, clamped in heavier pressure at the ankles than the head, a cripple in an alien land. From this day forward we would swim across miles of country no man had known, free and level, with our flesh feeling what the fish scales know.”

Later in his book, Cousteau demystifies the dangers I had been obsessed with as a child. “The monsters we have met seem a thoroughly harmless lot,” he writes. “Some are indifferent to men; others are curious about us, most of them are frightened when we approach closely.”

Now he tells me.

The immense success of “The Silent World” — it sold more than 5 million copies in 22 languages — demonstrates that Cousteau was more than a cameraman who brought back pictures from the deep. He brought a poetic spirit to his adventures and observations and so became the conduit by which millions of people made their first communion with the vast world of underwater life.

The book was just the beginning, though. It was Cousteau’s first feature-length documentary film, also titled “The Silent World,” that became a true artistic landmark (seamark?). Film was, of course, the perfect medium for capturing his subject in its full glory. Co-directed by Louis Malle, who was then just 23 and years away from directing such art-house classics as “Murmur of the Heart” and “Au revoir les enfants,” “The Silent World” won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival as well as an Oscar for best documentary in 1956.

But while Cousteau’s book is widely available in libraries, the film is now not so easily obtained. The French-language video can be purchased overseas, but “The Silent World” is not available in the United States in any form. To see it, I had to arrange for a private screening at the UCLA film and television archive, which owns two prints.

I am led to a dismal little closet of a room tucked away under a massive soundstage. There is no large projection screen, no reclining chair and certainly no popcorn. I will be watching the film on what looks like a large version of a library microfiche viewer and listening to it through headphones. The screen is small, like a medium-size TV set, but it will have to do.

Despite less than ideal viewing conditions, “The Silent World” is fascinating from its first frames, which show five divers descending through the blue expanse of the ocean. Each carries a bright flare, blazing a path of light into the murky ocean depths as a cascade of bubbles rises to the surface in their wake. “This is a motion-picture studio 65 feet under the sea,” announces the narrator. These are Cousteau’s “menfish” — divers who, thanks to the aqualung, have gained the motility of creatures born to live in the sea.

I find myself involuntarily holding my breath as they fall deeper and deeper into the vastness of the sea. At 100 feet they turn on floodlights, peeling away the veil of universal blue that had enshrouded a reef for millennia and illuminating a dazzling array of oranges and reds. They go deeper, to 200 feet, and enter what Cousteau calls “the world of rapture.” At this depth, the body cannot process the increased levels of nitrogen in the bloodstream, and divers suffer from “nitrogen narcosis” — an instantaneous intoxication that, Cousteau tells us, causes the coral to assume “nightmare shapes.” They dive deeper still, to 247 feet, and film the deepest shot ever taken at that time by a cameraman.

Back on the surface, Cousteau, in his mid-40s, is almost impossibly lean and sinewy, his torso a washboard of musculature without a pinch of fat. It is a body made for the ocean, and he seems somehow out of his proper element on the deck of his ship, Calypso, named for the beautiful nymph in Homer’s “Odyssey” who held Odysseus captive for seven years but tended to his every need and desire.

Cousteau is not the only one who seems out of his element when he surfaces in “The Silent World.” Whereas he and his crew were graceful swimmers in the deep, on deck they reenact minidramas for the camera with all the skill of high school actors fumbling their way through Shakespeare. When one of Cousteau’s men complains of pain in his knee after a dive, Cousteau orders him into the decompression chamber.

“Do I have to, Captain?” the diver protests woodenly, almost managing to sound like a child who has been ordered to bed without dinner.

“Absolutely,” says Cousteau stiffly.

Cousteau was almost as interested in gadgetry as he was in marine exploration, and this little scene allows him to show off his decompression chamber, a not particularly impressive metal cylinder.

It turns out that the captain was in fact sending his diver to bed without dinner, for while the man pitiably languishes in the coffinlike tube, his crew mates feast on lobster. Despite the dreadful acting, it is a funny scene and suggests why Cousteau became so popular over the years. It wasn’t just the technical accomplishments of capturing marine life on film. It was the human element, the joy Cousteau and his crew so clearly took in exploration. They are like children in a strange new wonderland: At one point he films his divers “flying through space” as they zip through the water pulled by electric scooters, a scene that clearly inspired the climactic underwater fight in the James Bond film “Thunderball.”

As fascinated as Cousteau was with such technology, the focus of “The Silent World” is on human interaction with nature. So we see a diver hitch a ride on a giant sea turtle’s back, and later the explorers befriend a big, ugly grouper with a few jagged teeth, whom they name Ulysses. While a waltz plays, a diver dangles a bag of food before the big fish, dancing in circles with it. Later, when Ulysses keeps disturbing their attempts to film, they playfully jail him in an anti-shark cage until they’re done.

These scenes are lighthearted and fun, exhibiting Cousteau’s almost mischievous approach to exploration. Others induce awe. In one scene, a massive school of porpoises play around Calypso’s bow, outrunning the ship with seeming ease and leaping gloriously into the air as if being shot out of underwater cannons. Even watching it on my small screen in a closet-size room in Los Angeles, I was breathless at the spectacle of hundreds of these graceful creatures soaring through the air.

Another scene shows Calypso pitching wildly in a monsoon. The waves hit the sides of the ship like bombs and the ship creaks and shudders as it smashes into the swells. One particularly dramatic shot from high in the crow’s nest looks down on the bow as it crashes onto the water. Now this is a perfect storm, I thought.

For me the heart of the film is a scene in which the crew explores a sunken ship. A diver finds an anchor on the seabed and traces its line to a wreck that has been colonized by the ocean, every inch of it overgrown with coral. We watch from the diver’s point of view as he glides along the surface of the tilted deck, then pries open a door and swims inside, descending into the bowels of the ship. There is no narration. With the exception of some eerie music, Cousteau lets the silent world speak for itself. I found myself recalling a verse by the 19th-century English Romantic poet Thomas Hood:

“There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave — under the deep deep sea.”

I felt a little like I was trespassing on someone’s grave as the diver made his way through the wreck, yet I also felt a frisson at being granted this privileged look into a nearly mystical world outside our normal time and space.

Later, the Calypso crew sights a school of 27 sperm whales and follows them. Tragically, a 20-foot whale calf is sucked under the ship and heavily lacerated by one of its propellers. A tide of blood discolors the ocean. Cousteau observes that there is no way it can survive so they pull the whale alongside the ship and shoot it to put it out of its misery.

The blood attracts a swarm of sharks. “Then comes the first bite,” Cousteau comments. “It is the signal for the orgy to begin.” The sharks strip the whale of flesh chunk by chunk, biting and gnashing away. The crewmen, Cousteau explains, are enraged at what he calls the “mortal enemies” of divers, and they “grab anything they can to avenge the whale.” What follows is also an orgy of violence. The crew hauls shark after shark up onto the deck and brutally hacks at their heads with axes, tuna hooks and crowbars.

This vengeful wrath over the shark attack may seem an admirable display of emotion, but it struck me as at least partly disingenuous. The whale is already dead. Its death was an accident but the crew of Calypso is responsible, not the sharks. The sharks are merely following their instincts, after all. Nothing is gained by killing them except some dramatic footage.

There are other indications that at this early stage Cousteau and his crew were not the best custodians of the life they sought to capture on film. At one point they dynamite a remote coral reef. While Cousteau condemns dynamiting as a fishing method, he justifies it for science as the only way to take an accurate census of the marine life in an area. He never tells us why it is important to take a census and what the results are. Instead, he just shows us hundreds of fish lying dead on the sea floor and a puffer fish deflating as it dies. It is a “tragic scene,” he admits, but he doesn’t linger on the fact that he created it.

It’s uncomfortable to watch such things now, almost 50 years after they were filmed, because our sensibilities have changed. Today we know that ocean life is in danger, that reefs are dying and that sharks play an important role in the marine ecosystem. It’s unlikely, of course, that Cousteau’s actions were malicious. For all his knowledge of marine biology, he was simply naïve.

As time progressed, Cousteau became a prominent spokesman for protecting the oceans. In 1960 he galvanized public support to prevent nuclear waste from being dumped in the Mediterranean. In 1974 he founded the Cousteau Society in the United States to advocate environmental protection. And in 1977 he spent five months collecting samples from the Mediterranean and produced a television documentary that educated viewers about the devastating impact of pollution on the ecosystem. Whereas the waters off Marseille teemed with life in the short films Cousteau made soon after World War II, 30 years later the same area was virtually barren.

But our greatest debt to Jacques Cousteau is for the lifetime of oceanic exploration that he captured on film, an odyssey he began with “The Silent World.” Cousteau’s motto aboard Calypso was “Il faut aller voir” (“We must go and see”). He insisted that people needed to venture into the seas to understand and appreciate their marvels. When he and his men descended to depths previously unplumbed, they brought millions with them.

When I step into the ocean now, I am no longer afraid, thanks to Jacques Cousteau. And thanks to Jacques Cousteau, I am still full of wonder.

Greg Rubinson is a writer in Los Angeles.

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