Silent World, The (1956)

“No instrument can replace man. Divers are indispensable in a modern study of the sea.”

Silent World Poster

Synopsis:
Jacques Cousteau and his crew explore the ocean on their diving ship, the Calypso.

Genres:

Review:
Fans of underwater diving and sea life will be both shocked and disturbed to visit this Oscar-winning documentary by famed diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau (who based the film on his bestselling 1953 book The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure). Although he’s known as a pioneering marine conservationist (in 1973, he co-founded the Cousteau Society for the Protection of Ocean Life) this film demonstrates a horrifying level of disrespect towards marine animal life, with various sequences showing Cousteau and/or his crew “riding” on the backs of sea turtles trying to swim to the surface for air; attempting half-heartedly to harpoon a whale; viciously attacking a school of sharks simply because they “dare” to circle around a dead whale and eat its flesh; dynamiting a coral reef; and gleefully showing off a frightened puffer fish as it releases water.

With that said, those who are able to stomach these scenes of blatant violence should at least appreciate Cousteau’s groundbreaking work in the field of underwater cinematography. Assisted by a young Louis Malle, Cousteau captured haunting footage of life under water — the type of imagery we take for granted now, but which was remarkably innovative at the time. A sequence in which a crew member slowly swims through a sunken wreck is particularly haunting. In 1964, Cousteau directed and produced another Oscar-winning documentary, Le Monde Sans Soleil (“A World Without Sun”), which documented a team of divers living in an underwater research vessel; while it still shows evidence of laughable human hubris, it’s at least free from scenes of blatant disrespect towards sea life.

Note: It’s revealing that, upon its release in theaters, The New York Times praised The Silent World unreservedly, without mentioning any of the above “issues” — which says something profound about the era in which it was made.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some truly beautiful early footage of underwater life
    Silent World Underwater
    Silent World Underwater2
  • The crew exploring an old wreck
    Silent World Wreck

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance — but be forewarned that you WILL be disturbed by much of what you see. It’s inexplicably labeled a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book (what was he thinking?).

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One Response to “Silent World, The (1956)”

  1. First viewing. Not a must.

    Admittedly, there is a good deal of rare footage of marine life, some of it rather striking. But, overall, the narration and tone of the piece carry something of a dry, textbook quality. You’ll learn some things about what divers actually experience physically (during and after) as a result of what they undertake. But much of what you see here will, more than likely, not be particularly new to you (i.e., the ‘evil’ nature of sharks, the elusiveness of whales, the female turtle’s arduous task of coming on-shore to lay eggs. etc.).

    The film really will be more of interest to those with a leaning toward marine biology.

    ~though I did get a kick out of the wonderful footage of dolphins racing along, leaping up into the air, and diving back to continue racing along. And the Calypso’s mascot dachshund is adorable.

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