This is the story of the expeditions of the Calypso, a research vessel which deep sea diver Jacques-Yves Cousteau took around the world's oceans and seas to get a better look at the kind of life which teamed beneath the waves. Here we saw them travel to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean in their quest to find out more about the environment that takes up two thirds of the Earth's surface, and the many adventures along the way, from lighthearted comic moments to more tragic experiences. All in the name of science...
Well, that was their excuse anyway and they were sticking to it. The Silent World, or Le Monde du silence to give the film its original French title, was garlanded with awards when it was initially released, and made Cousteau a household name across the globe especially after his Oscar win for Best Documentary. It was the stepping stone to the man's great works in ocean conservation, and gave many the idea that strapping on scuba gear and going exploring was a fine way to spend your holiday, if you could afford the expense.
However, while you can see why the allure of life under the sea captured the imagination, the activities of the crew of the Calypso look, to modern eyes, more than a little unusual. We are used to seeing nature documentaries where the subjects are treated with the utmost respect, but here you grow ever more aghast at the behaviour of these supposed animal lovers. Nowadays, it's probable more people will know of Cousteau for his take-off in the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but this documentary proves that fact is often stranger than fiction, in spite of the explorer's historical reputation.
It begins innocuously enough, with Cousteau informing us of the dangers that the bends hold for divers, and some obviously staged sequences see one of his team suffering from this and having to be placed in a decompression chamber, while his colleagues help themselves to the lobsters he has caught. Wait a sec, you think, that looks to be a hell of a lot of lobsters, it's a wonder there are any left, but this is merely the start of some developments which give the modern viewer pause for thought. Next, the divers are seen riding on turtles' backs, creatures which struggle to reach the surface to catch their breath with a hefty human hanging on them.
With a brief pause to check out a sunken ship, proof that the ocean is ever dominant where mankind is concerned, we see Cousteau's team setting off dynamite to see how many different types of fish are on this reef - what? He tells us this is the only way to keep count of the fish, but after seeing a puffer deflate on the beach and you wonder if there was not, perhaps, a less harsh way to investigate this topic. Then comes the most notorious part: the Calypso, while in whale waters, accidentally lacerates a baby sperm whale with its propellor and the crew are forced to put a bullet in its brain after harpooning the injured beast to get a good shot. After that, the sharks arrive to eat what they can from its body, but then the crew start rounding them up and bludgeoning them to death! Far from his conservationism, The Silent World makes Cousteau and friends look bloodthirsty and callous, so we should be pleased that the world, both undersea and on land, has moved on. On the plus side, there is some beautiful photography, on the minus, a strong stomach is required. Or a strong sense of humour. Music by Yves Baudrier.