By Betsy A. McLane, Ph.D.
Rachel Carson’s (1917–1964) classic book THE SEA AROUND US, remains in print and is widely distributed more than fifty years after its first publication in 1952. Her highly readable descriptions of the origins of earth’s oceans and the wonders beneath their surfaces have enchanted generations of readers. She has been called “The Mother of the Environmental Movement,” more for SILENT SPRING (1962), which exposed the dangers of the pesticide DDT than for THE SEA AROUND US. THE SEA AROUND US, however, was the first of Carson’s four books, and its success enabled her to write SILENT SPRING. Based on her work as a biologist and zoologist, it was conceived when she worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (Later the Fish and Wildlife Service) and was serialized in many contemporary publications.
When Irwin Allen (1916–1991) decided in the early 1950s to make a film version of the book, it must have seemed a natural money maker, and a great way to jump start the career of a Hollywood film producer. The book had, at that time, been on the best-seller list for more than 70 weeks, and Allen was building a filmmaking career in Hollywood, having only a couple of associate producer credits to his name. The film of THE SEA AROUND US went on to a healthy theatrical life as a second-billed title for its studio, RKO, and later became a staple of the 16mm educational market. According to studio press releases, Allen’s original plan to shoot the film from scratch was untenable to RKO executives who estimated the cost of such a production to be over $4 million. In response, he hit upon the seemingly brilliant idea to compile a film based on existing scientific research footage. By contacting over 2000 museums, scientific institutes, universities, individuals and the like, Allen was able to come up with over 300 hours of footage, which he and editors then cut to 61 minutes. He paid Carson $25,000 and paid no one for the filmed material, convincing the original makers that the prestige of being credited on the film version of THE SEA AROUND US was compensation enough.
Neither the book nor the film contains a storyline. Rather, episodes that describe the origin of the earth, the lives of various undersea creatures, the jobs done by fisherman and others who work with marine life, along with scientific explorations are presented in episodic style. The film links these episodes, which were originally shot mostly in 16 mm and in a range of color film processes, through special effects sequences designed by Linwood Dunn, ASC (1904–1999), then the resident wizard of optical effects at RKO. It features the booming voices of two “Voice of God” (literally) narrators who explain what is going on onscreen. Although its imagery and structure seem stilted by 21st Century standards, critics, and presumably audiences at the time were enthralled. THE SEA AROUND US was made some time before the films of Jacques Cousteau were seen widely, and its Technicolor wonders of the deep were revelatory to most of the public.
It is also in many ways dated in its approach to the subject. The narration, written by Allen, continually refers to the “limitless bounty” of the sea, as it celebrates the activities of salmon fishermen and the dragging nets of crab fisherman. In an astonishing sequence, the bloody harpooning of a whale from a small boat is captured close-up: a breathless drama unfolds as the whale is then attacked by other, killer whales, and the crew must respond so that “all can share” in the catch. Much of this would be humorous, if we did not now understand the ecological peril that our whales and our oceans face today. Most egregiously, THE SEA AROUND US insists on anthropomorphizing the marine life. By setting the sequences up in cute stories, the narration belittles the dignity carried in the images. All of this human-centric celebration of life is then creepily undone in an ending that brings back the Voice of God in a doomsday warning about the melting of the polar icecaps.
Allen, who was previously a magazine editor, literary agent and radio producer, can now be revealed as the godfather of celerity-based television. In the early days of TV he brought the celebrity panel game show to the small screen with a show called “Hollywood Merry Go Round.” His early Hollywood nickname “Mr. Entertainment” merged and morphed after the success of THE SEA AROUND US and a similar effects-enhanced documentary (in this case by Ray Harryhausen) called THE ANIMAL WORLD, to the “Master of Disaster” as he produced disaster potboilers such as THE LOST WORLD (1961) THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961), and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974).