Sea Around Us, The (DVD Review)27 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Howard Hughes took over RKO in 1948, and even those who haven’t seen Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator can assume that he didn’t stay up too many nights (while running the organization into the ground) worrying about which of his releases did or didn’t win the year’s Oscar for best feature documentary.
But 1951’s RKO-distributed Kon-Tiki did just that — a feat the studio duplicated just a year later with a second non-fiction film adapted from a bestseller with an oceanic backdrop. Sea’s author was the eventually world-renowned Rachel Carson, and it isn’t hard to understand why she threw up her hands over this hour-long screen treatment, which nonetheless proved popular with audiences (including my paternal grandmother, who ooohed-and-aaahed about it at the time).
In movie terms, this all predated Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who later won his own Oscars in the underwater realm: for The Silent World in 1956 and World Without Sun in 1964 (both standout features unavailable on DVD aside from the former’s hard-to-find Region 2 release). It’s a safe assumption that many moviegoers who got off on Sea’s shark-octopus battle or its queasy encounter with a moray eel (a quarter century before Lou Gossett’s fateful finish in The Deep) had never seen anything like this on screen. At least in Technicolor.
Nature documentaries for truly mass consumption were infrequent enough to be news whenever they appeared, though Frank Buck’s jungle treks for RKO in the ’30s (now, there could be a fabulous Warner “on-demand” set) did play smaller theatrical markets to a degree that, say, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North probably didn’t. The most likely influence here must have been Disney’s popular “True-Life Adventures” series, which had launched in 1948. At its worst, Sea employs some of the most critically lambasted devices identified with Disney (who did it less gratingly): the assignment of human traits to creatures (even primitive ones) and letting the soundtrack’s musical brass section go “wah-wah-wah” a little too much for comic effect.
The producer here was a young Irwin Allen, best known for such later extravaganzas The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and TV’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” — and well before them, 1956’s The Animal World (also just out as a Warner on-demand title I haven’t been able to see yet). Allen was a showman through and through — animated dinosaur skirmishes were a highlight of World, which my childhood buds and I thought beyond cool when we saw it at our neighborhood theater — so it’s not surprising that breathless pacing seems to be his main concern here, though not without an occasional clash in tone. Sometimes Sea’s off-screen narrator (in a kind of voice-of-God mode) seems overwhelmed by the subject’s magnitude. Other times, whimsy becomes the order of the day when comedy relief takes priority. Wah-wah-wah.
In any event, we get sponge collecting, crab herding, whale catching, shark walking (someone in another apparent tough job market revives tranquilized sharks in a pool), several examples of underwater camouflaging and protective coloration, salmon who battle those famous Pacific Northwest upstream elements and an underwater chamber called the Benthoscope (it seems to have anticipated Cousteau’s own transportation devices) that was capable of descending about 4,500 feet into the water.
This is a lot of material for an hour, so you get your money’s worth, though no one will ever call this the most focused documentary ever made. It ends, for all of Carson’s displeasure at the time, on a very contemporary Carson-like note: the fear of melting glaciers and what that would mean for the planet. Understandably unanticipated is anything like the BP oil spill, and, in fact, a couple oil companies are included on a long list of acknowledgments during the credits. Allen got his footage here from a lot of different sources (apparently even Standard Oil of California), and tying this material together must been an exercise almost as arduous as, say, trying to get the Poseidon to flip a second time.