Since The Silent World nabbed the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1956, the name Jacques Cousteau has been synonymous with marine exploration. And while it’s easy to get lost in his prolific resume (which includes a stint as a spy with the French Resistance and co-inventing the aqualung), Cousteau’s legacy is undeniably one of influence; of sharing something he loved with the public and subsequently helping them fall in love with it, too. His work, on-screen and off, inspired a generation to take up scuba diving, to marvel at the alien beauty of undersea landscapes, and to become alert to the man-made problems that threatened their existence.
Cousteau was, bluntly put, pretty much singlehandedly responsible for popularizing modern marine conservation as we know it today. Which, last time we checked, makes him a huge fucking badass.
Of all Cousteau’s documentaries, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was perhaps his most influential. The docu-series premiered in 1968 and brought the exploits of the Calypso and her heroic (and stylish) crew into the living rooms of thousands of eager viewers, a feat unmet by earlier nonfiction oceanographic efforts like Thirty Leagues Under the Sea (1914) and The Sea Around Us (1953).
The series ran for seven years and featured pioneering underwater cinematography, a gripping sense of adventurism and (if you were watching stateside) the dulcet tones of Rod Serling. Given Serling’s then-fresh work on The Twilight Zone, I can’t imagine a better narrator to shepherd starry-eyed viewers through this strange new world that had been lurking, just out of sight, right under their noses.
Cousteau’s influence is such that it is damn near impossible to depict oceanography in fiction without making a passing reference to the man. And of course, this is to say nothing of Cousteau’s role in countless technical innovations in underwater cinematography. All to say: cinema is greatly indebted to Cousteau, in large part because the aquatic activity he emboldened in his documentaries resonated (and continues to resonate) with untold numbers of filmmakers and audiences alike.
So, in honor of the 50th anniversary of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, let’s dive into the cinematic legacy (and influences) of cinema’s favorite aquanaut:
John Ernest Williamson
While cinema certainly owes a debt to Cousteau, Cousteau was himself partially inspired by film. More specifically the 1916 American adaptation of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” which Cousteau saw as a teenager in Paris. The film’s then-revolutionary underwater filmmaking was shot by two brothers from Vermont. “[Cousteau] was trying everything he could think of to keep his camera dry and shoot movie film underwater,” wrote Brad Matsen in 2009’s “The Sea King,” “he read everything he could about the American brothers.”
The elder of these brothers, John Ernest Williamson (1881-1966), was a veritable pioneer of undersea photography and was active in motion pictures for almost 50 years. His father, Charles, was a sea captain and inventor who had created a specialized tube which, when hung from a vessel, facilitated communication and (critically) airflow to depths of 250 feet. Seeing the potential of his father’s invention for undersea photography, John designed a special observation chamber which for all its technical merit and contribution to underwater cinema, looks terrifying as heck. Such is progress.
In an aesthetic sense, Luc Besson’s completely underwater documentary Atlantis very readily adopts the kinetic, at times disorienting camera movements we see throughout Cousteau’s filmography. The camera meets marine life halfway, testing the possibilities of motion, physicality, and perception opened up by being underwater. Cousteau’s Big Dream of humanity developing gills and living permanently underwater (no, really) also makes an appearance in The Big Blue, in which a free diver plunges to a record 400 feet, only to swim away with a dolphin because, quoth a talking crab, darling it’s better down where it’s wetter…or something.
There is an extremely high likelihood that you have seen the work of Al “21st Century Jacques Cousteau” Giddings, one of Hollywood’s most accomplished marine cinematographers who has by his count spent more than 20,000 hours underwater. Giddings was responsible for the underwater sequences in James Bond films like For Your Eyes Only and Never Say Never Again, for subsea thrillers like The Deep and The Abyss, and for more Nat-Geo specials and documentary features than you can shake a submersible pressure gauge at. James Cameron and Giddings spent more than 200 hours on the Titanic‘s decks shooting the wreck (and you can check out all the hair-raising details here).
Does Cousteau deserve better than being semi-fictionalized on film as a selfish jerk played by Bill Murray? Yeah. It’s not ideal that most folks associate the buffoonery of Steve Zissou with the man upon whom he is based. That said, Cousteau’s influence is sub-dermal when it comes to the work of Wes Anderson. As was the case for many children born in the ’60s, Cousteau was one of Anderson’s childhood heroes and many of The Life Aquatic’s narrative and aesthetic flourishes resonate with details of Cousteau’s life, work, and vibe. Cousteau’s presence in Anderson’s work can also be felt in Max’s inscribed copy of “Diving for Sunken Treasure” in Rushmore and in the cameo of Richard Avedon’s portrait of Cousteau in Bottle Rocket. The Life Aquatic even has a shout-out to Cousteau’s mentor Jacques Henri Lartigue, whose influence also runs rampant in Anderson’s filmography.
James Cameron’s infatuation with deep-sea exploration is well documented, and in an interview with National Geographic, he explained that his love of going very, very deep stemmed from watching Cousteau as a child. Captivated by Cousteau’s otherworldly underwater footage, Cameron (himself a native of landlocked rural Canada) became a scuba diver at the age of 16. The Abyss, Cameron’s third film, not only allowed him to enmesh his love of diving and film but to create connections within the deep-ocean community that would set him up to visit the wreck of the Titanic in 1995 to the tune of 10 Oscars and unprecedented box office success. A couple of years back, Cameron’s exploratory ambition peaked in the most Cousteau-y fashion imaginable, with Cameron piloting the Deepsea Challenger to the deepest known point on Earth for a reconnaissance mission/documentary shoot.
While Cousteau wasn’t without sin (the Calypso mistreats its fair share of marine life in The Silent World), as his career developed so to did his sense of environmental stewardship. Cousteau’s approach to activism was simple: if you don’t know, you can’t care. In many ways BBC’s Planet Earth and Blue Planet are most visibly carrying on Cousteau’s legacy by investing the public in natural wonders that are as marvelous as they are at risk, of presenting viewers with spectacular things they didn’t know existed and showing (not telling) them why they matter. Attenborough’s work, like Cousteau’s before it, asks audience’s to pivot their understanding of the world around them, from exploitable resource to something precious, limited, and worth protecting.