Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Silent World

Having inspired swathes of oceanographers and documentary makers from Steve Zissou to David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau was a true trailblazer in the world of underwater filmmaking. And now, more than fifty years after its initial release, this groundbreaking feature is available for home audiences on DVD and Blu-ray. But in the face of modern technology and filming techniques, can Cousteau’s 1954 Oscar winner still hold its own?

Set on board the good ship Calypso, The Silent World follows Cousteau and co-director Louis Malle on their mission to capture the hitherto unseen beauty of the deeps on camera.

Filmed in glorious Technicolor, the film reveals the unseen world and a wealth of life which was brand new to the original audience.

Life on board the boat is both a voyage of discovery and an adventure, as the crew utilise aqualung technology to film deeper than ever before, capturing shark attacks, shipwrecks and a sense of boundless possibility…

The film opens with a stunning descent to the depths, as five bare-chested divers swim through a vivid blue expanse. Each carries a flaming torch, somehow burning despite being submerged. Huge gas plumes rise above them as the commentary announces that “this is a motion-picture studio 65 feet under the sea.” It’s an intriguing opening, beautifully framed and impressive so many years after the event – largely because it leaves an audience accustomed to wetsuits and cutting edge diving equipment, wondering how it’s possible to survive and film at such depths with underwater flares and antiquated oxygen tanks.

The divers are compared to spacemen and it’s easy to see why. Their movements are not typically human and their environment is utterly alien. With the seabed illuminated by large floodlights, the blue water is punctuated by corals and crustaceans of bright reds and oranges – a natural contrast to the burning orange flares which previously lit their way. But upon surfacing, the crew become merely human again. And their humanity is in stark contrast to the natural beauty they left below the ocean’s surface.

Cousteau is a bronzed, hard-bodied figure. His leathery skin and lean frame make him look rather like one of the sea-creatures he seeks to film – and he’s seemingly less comfortable on deck than he is underwater. Despite giving a fascinating insight into the cameras and filming apparatus which allowed their early forays beneath the waves, it is the ethical and environmental choices made by Cousteau and his crew which jar with a modern audience.

Despite describing the ‘50s as a “golden age” for underwater exploration, much of Cousteau’s aim in this film seems to be the exploitation of the natural resources. Perhaps hindsight and greater knowledge of the natural world are responsible for the uncomfortable feeling which accompanies watching a man hitching a ride on a turtle or dynamiting a coral reef, but it’s impossible to imagine that someone as well versed in the relationship between mankind and marine life failed to realise how wrong it is to interfere in such a way. And such misgivings are nothing compared to those which accompany the film’s most disturbing scene…

Following a huge pod of sperm whales, the Calypso follows them through the ocean. Sadly, a young calf is pulled under the boat and into its propellers. Bleeding heavily, it is unlikely to survive, so Cousteau makes the decision to pull it alongside the ship and put it out of its misery by shooting it. The water around the ship is red with blood and, predictably, begins to attract sharks. These scavengers of the sea tear the whale to pieces. Whilst this might be difficult for some viewers to watch, it is not nearly as uncomfortable as seeing the Calypso’s crew dragging these sharks onto the boat’s deck and hacking at them with axes and crowbars.

It’s a sickeningly unnecessary display of vengeance. But what are they seeking revenge for? Animals attacking and eating an animal which has already died – and at their hands? Whilst the footage is dramatic, it is utterly contrived and completely barbaric. It serves no purpose, and even their relative lack of knowledge cannot defend them against accusations of opportunism and bloodlust.

Punctuating the documentary are some truly excruciating scenes of ‘faux reality’. Much like those seen in reality TV pap like The Only Way Is Essex, The Silent World features some heightened versions of reality. Rehearsed and acted, these come across as being uncomfortable and unnatural for everyone involved. It’s a shame that the conventions of the time didn’t allow for a more realistic portrayal of everyday events – the watching audience would have been afforded a much more interesting window into the truth of Cousteau’s adventures were it not for these parodies of reality.

There are some wonderful episodes, though. A pod of dolphins is captured playfully swimming alongside the Calypso, and an underwater wreck is explored in exquisite and understated detail. Combined with Cousteau’s infectious (although often misplaced) enthusiasm, this ensures that there is enough of interest here to ensure that it remains a historically and cinematically interesting piece.

The Silent World is little more than a period piece, serving to remind us how far our knowledge and understanding of the natural world has developed in the last half century. Whilst Cousteau shone a light on how fascinating life in the oceans is, he never really illuminated it. That this was due to ignorance or the lack of necessary technology is a moot point: whilst we have the likes of the BBC producing nature programmes like The Blue Planet, we will only ever need to view Jacques Cousteau as relic and a reminder of how far we’ve come.

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