Rachel L. Carson As Interpreted by Irwin Allen

You wouldn’t think there would be a connection between these two people but they were linked forever in 1953 over the film adaptation of Rachel L. Carson’s award winning book, The Sea Around Us. Carson was a respected marine biologist and an unusually eloquent nature writer whose first book, Under the Sea Wind, received critical acclaim in 1941. Irwin Allen, on the other hand, was relatively unknown at the time. A journalism graduate of Columbia University, he was trying to break into the film industry and wasn’t yet famous as the producer of such sci-fi TV series as Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel or as the reigning specialist of disaster genre films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) and The Swarm (1978).  *THE SEA AROUND US airs on TCM on Friday, September 14 at 6 pm ET,     

When The Sea Around Us was published in 1951, it became a best seller for Carson and RKO Studios quickly purchased the film rights with the intention to turn it into a documentary. Allen, who already had an impressive resume of magazine and advertising work by this time, was hired to write and direct the movie adaptation and Carson was hired as a consultant – but not on the script. She was only retained for her input on film footage selected for THE SEA AROUND US and had no power to change or alter Irwin’s editorial approach to her book. The resulting film, which is now available in the Warner Archive Collection, is one of the most unintentionally amusing and wrong-headed attempts by Hollywood to turn a landmark book of scientific investigation into an accessible entertainment for the masses. Landing somewhere between the kitschy playfulness of such Walt Disney nature films as The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954) and the Mondo Cane exploitation films of the sixties,THE SEA AROUND US is nonetheless presented as the authorized, big screen equivalent of Carson’s book and even impressed the Academy members enough to win an Oscar for Best Documentary. Carson, however, was appalled by Allen’s misrepresentation of her fascinating and articulate survey of one of mankind’s greatest natural resources…and if you see this, you’ll know why.

Instead of Carson’s focus on the ecosystems within and around the oceans of the world, Allen’s approach is to show the value and importance of the sea to man – it’s all about us. After all, who else is at the top of the food chain? And if you have any doubts, the portentous narration featuring two voice talents (Don Forbes and Theodor von Eltz) drives it home in the opening moments of THE SEA AROUND US as one of them proclaims over beautifully photographed vistas of the ocean – “Fresh food locker of the world. Treasure chest of the Earth larder. Almost 30% of all the food eaten by people comes from the sea.”  In fact, most of the underwater movement glimpsed in this film from microscopic denizens of the deep to killer whales is motivated by the desire to eat or not be eaten. This kill or be killed approach is still the reason most people continue to be fascinated by nature shows on TV and was simply one more exploitation angle for Allen but has little to do with the intellectual thrust of Carson’s bestseller.

According to author Linda Lear in Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Allen sent the marine biologist the final draft but her response was not favorable. ‘Frankly, I could not believe my first reading,” she told Shirley Collier, her film agent in Hollywood, ‘and had to put it away and then sneak back to it the next day to see if it could possibly be as bad as I thought. But every reading sends my blood pressure higher’…..Carson was shocked that instead of sticking to the atmosphere and basic concepts of her book and presenting the authoritative scientific knowledge of the ocean as she had, Allen’s script was full of outmoded, unscientific concepts, presented in a distressingly, amateurish manner. She particularly objected to the anthropomorphism of the language Allen used to describe ocean creatures and their relationships with each other. In her cover letter Carson told Collier, ‘the practice of attributing human vices and virtues to the lower animals went out of fashion many years ago. It persists only at the level of certain Sunday Supplements.’ A typical example of this is Allen’s frequent attempts to inject some playful humor into the proceedings by giving voice to some of the animals on display. For example, he concludes a section on the cormorant, a fish hunting sea bird, with a visual joke. We see a cormorant on a pier being heckled by a nearby porpoise as the narrator, enacting the part of the bird, says “The fishing was bad enough today but the sarcasm is almost too much to bear. Oh well, tomorrow is another day but you should have seen the one that got away.” And the punchline is accented by the waa-waa-waa music.

You know you’re heading into troubled water when the opening credits of THE SEA AROUND US gives acknowledgments to such companies and special interest groups as Imperial Oil Limited, Marineland (Florida), Wakefield’s Deep SeaTrawlers, Fouke Fur Company and Union Pacific Railroad to name a few. And it gets worse – or funnier – from there as Allen feels it is necessary to present a recap of The Big Bang theory and the formation of the planet with plenty of stock footage of volcanic eruptions, lava flows and biblical allusions – “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth….”  While this opening section does mirror Carson’s introduction to her subject in the original book, it seems like bombastic overkill and needless exposition for a documentary that is trying to encapsulate Carson’s book within a running time of only 61 minutes.

As the film whizzes from close-up photography of unusual sea life to a brief overview of famous literary and historical figures associated with the sea – Jack London, John Paul Jones, etc. – it’s hard to know where Allen is leading us and he keeps us guessing. But one thing is constant – the relentless voiceover narration that reduces many of the film’s stunning visuals to classroom movie cliches. Over footage of an octopus embryo, we are informed, “These innocent, cute looking little fellows will grow up to be as deadly and vicious as their parents.” Sounds like people I know. Or how about this typical example of Irwin Allen hyperbole as we witness some deep sea predator in action: “All the fury of the sea explodes in this snake like killer. The jaw snaps, the tail thrashes, the hate becomes a living thing.”

Compare the above carnival barker come-on compared with the much more poetic and thought-provoking prose of Carson in this excerpt from The Sea Around Us: “Moving in fascination over the deep sea he [man] could not enter, he found ways to probe its depths, he let down nets to capture its life, he invented mechanical eyes and ears that could recreate for his senses a world long lost, but a world that, in the deepest part of his subconscious mind, he had never wholly forgotten. And yet he has returned to his mother sea only on her own terms.  He cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents.  In the artificial world of his cities and towns, he often forgets the true nature of his planet and the long vistas of its history, in which the existence of the race of men has occupied a mere moment in time.”

Probably the biggest disconnect between Carson’s book and the Allen film is just how UN-PC the documentary seems today.  While Carson is now considered a pioneering environmentalist, that term and the meaning of it was relatively new in the popular vernacular of its time and not something the average person discussed or read about in the daily news. And Allen’s take on THE SEA AROUND US, aimed at a wide, general audience, is more a reflection of mainstream values and populist viewpoints than a true representation of Carson’s theories and research. No wonder it seems so naive, so unenlightened and cringe-inducing from our privileged perspective from more than half a century later.

In Allen’s version – and I’m sure this was not his intention – the biggest predator of the ocean is – man (though this is very much one of Carson’s concerns). Instead Allen exalts and condones the behavior of man in almost every scene as if he was making an infomercial on deep sea fishing, harvesting and water sports. We see much footage of whaling boats and their crew slaughtering the great mammals for their valuable physical properties. In one truly shocking scene, we watch as a dead whale’s huge bloated tongue is pierced with a harpoon and deflates like a giant balloon. We witness sharks being given doped bait so they can be captured and put in Marineland shows. In one underwater encounter, a shark is even killed on camera by a diver armed with a huge knife. Even less threatening creatures such as the fiddler crab are served up as novelty acts while the narrator reminds us of what a sweet delicacy they are. Before the movie is half over, you even begin to fear for the hideous looking moray eel as we are shown deep sea hunters with spearguns with the narrator boasting, “The world beneath the sea is a new frontier for sportsmen. Here great game, still unknown to man with rod and reel, lurks and hides in the chilly depths.”

Other troubling sequences in THE SEA AROUND US include a grisly battle between a shark and an octopus which most certainly was staged for Allen’s cameras. And who really enjoys watching the hatching of baby turtles and their slow crawl toward the sea as predatory sea gulls swoop down gobbling them up (I think the narrator states there is a 1% survival rate) – a sequence which was depicted in much more graphic terms in the original Mondo Cane (1963), another unexpected Oscar nominee (but for Best Song, not Best Documentary). But most audiences have seen all of this before and won’t be nearly as bothered by it as they will by Allen’s depiction of porpoises and dolphins. You’d never know from this movie that these creatures are highly intelligent mammals with a language of their own and communication skills that are more highly evolved than man’s. Instead, the narrator tells us that porpoises are “the clowns of the sea. They can be trained to answer a dinner bell or actually jump for their dinner,” and we get to see how wacky they can be in their waterworld sideshows.

Yet, for all the dumbed down philosophizing, willy-nilly continuity and failed attempts at whimsy in the narration, there is also some truly stunning cinematography on display in THE SEA AROUND US. Footage of the Great Barrier Reef, porcipine fish, the peculiar gurnard (a species of “walking” fish), sponge harvesting, ghost shrimp, medusa jellyfish and other unusual sights are so fascinating that you may be driven to find out more about them on your own or even pick up one of Carson’s books in her deep sea trilogy, which in addition to The Sea Around Us, includes Under the Sea Wind and The Edge of the Sea (1955).

As for Irwin Allen, he goes for a highly theatrical apocalyptic finish to his film version of THE SEA AROUND US that is prophetic in more ways than one when you consider the long trajectory of his movie career (this was his first feature). He choses to end the documentary in the Arctic where we witness glaciers cracking apart and sliding into the sea. The voice over talent ominously informs us that “the melting of all these glaciers coupled with the drastic upheaval of the land masses of the globe will one day drown more than half the earth.”  And then he tops this stock footage orgy of heavy melting with doomsday music and the disturbing on-screen question: Is this….THE END?  While this is certainly one of the concerns Carson expresses in her book, Allen simply uses it for dramatic effect to close his film.  But did you really expect anything else from the future creator of the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series and most of the escapist fare he peddled to Saturday matinee audiences across the U.S. from The Animal World (1956) with its Ray Harryhausen/Willis H. O’Brien dinosaurs to Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) and beyond?

Regardless of Rachel Carson’s poor opinion of Allen’s adaptation of THE SEA AROUND US, the film certainly didn’t hurt her reputation or popularity and may have even enhanced it as it reached audiences which might not have read any of her books before. And besides winning the Best Documentary Oscar, it was well received by most film critics and reviewers. A typical example was Bosley Crowther’s review in The New York Times: ” The pleasure of ichthyologists and those who respond to the allure of the beauties and mysteries of the oceans and the wonders of the deep should be served in satisfying abundance by Irwin Allen’s Technicolored nature film “The Sea Around Us”…. For this assemblage of vivid color footage, which bears the name, at least, of the popular volume on oceanography and evolution that Rachel L. Carson wrote, is full of handsome pictures of the ocean, of fishes, of birds and of marine life, from microscopic creatures to giant Antarctic whales.”

After her experience with Irwin Allen on THE SEA AROUND US, Carson refused to sell the film rights to any of her other work. Her most famous book was undoubtedly Silent Spring (1962) which documented the dangerous effects of pesticides on the environment and stirred up considerable controversy upon its publication (It was required reading in some high schools in the sixties). The bestseller was later said to have inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately Carson’s visionary work was cut short by her early death at the age of 57 in 1964 (she was being treated for breast cancer and in her weakened condition died of a heart attack). She did live long enough to see CBS Reports produce two highly acclaimed documentaries on her recent book, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” (1963) and “The Verdict of the Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” (1963).  I’m actually surprised that Carson hasn’t been the subject of a documentary herself when you consider the popularity of such recent documentaries as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and the fact that during her own lifetime Carson and her research was attacked by other scientists and government officials as being the work of a “hysterical woman.”  However, for an interesting juxtapostion of past and present, compare THE SEA AROUND US to whichever film wins this year’s Best Documentary Oscar to see how far we’ve come in that category.

28 Responses Rachel L. Carson As Interpreted by Irwin Allen
Posted By PASSENGERFILMS : February 20, 2011 11:45 am

Fantastic blog post! It makes me want to screen it. I am actually planning a rescored screening of early (mainly silent) nature docs, starting with ‘Rough Sea at Dover’ and ending with Jean Painleve. Just retweeted this article – you on twitter?

Posted By PASSENGERFILMS : February 20, 2011 11:45 am

Fantastic blog post! It makes me want to screen it. I am actually planning a rescored screening of early (mainly silent) nature docs, starting with ‘Rough Sea at Dover’ and ending with Jean Painleve. Just retweeted this article – you on twitter?

Posted By morlockjeff : February 20, 2011 1:59 pm

Jean Painleve’s movies are true marvels and you could probably improve THE SEA AROUND US by stripping out the narration and providing a music score instead. Some of the footage is quite striking.

Posted By morlockjeff : February 20, 2011 1:59 pm

Jean Painleve’s movies are true marvels and you could probably improve THE SEA AROUND US by stripping out the narration and providing a music score instead. Some of the footage is quite striking.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2011 3:45 pm

Most people watch nature documentaries for the sights anyway. The narration is much less important than what they are seeing. Viewers may remember a statement here or a statement there, but the visuals are what will stay with them.

I love the old Disney “True-Life Adventures” and other nature documentary films from that period. The sights are what I remember. They helped foster an appreciation and respect for nature in me, but without turning me into an environmentalist. Despite their political incorrectness or “kitsch” they are beautiful things to watch in bright Technicolor.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2011 3:45 pm

Most people watch nature documentaries for the sights anyway. The narration is much less important than what they are seeing. Viewers may remember a statement here or a statement there, but the visuals are what will stay with them.

I love the old Disney “True-Life Adventures” and other nature documentary films from that period. The sights are what I remember. They helped foster an appreciation and respect for nature in me, but without turning me into an environmentalist. Despite their political incorrectness or “kitsch” they are beautiful things to watch in bright Technicolor.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2011 3:46 pm

Where might I find “The Animal World”? I’m intrigued by that.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2011 3:46 pm

Where might I find “The Animal World”? I’m intrigued by that.

Posted By morlockjeff : February 20, 2011 4:12 pm

THE ANIMAL WORLD is also available from the Warner Archive Collection and that’s one I’ve always wanted to see too.

Here’s a link to it
http://turnerclassic.moviesunlimited.com/product.asp?sku=D82121&directHit=1

Posted By morlockjeff : February 20, 2011 4:12 pm

THE ANIMAL WORLD is also available from the Warner Archive Collection and that’s one I’ve always wanted to see too.

Here’s a link to it
http://turnerclassic.moviesunlimited.com/product.asp?sku=D82121&directHit=1

Posted By Jenni : February 20, 2011 4:14 pm

I guess we should all be grateful Irwin Allen didn’t ad deep sea monsters attacking sea going ships in this film, considering his love of monsters attacking the Robinson family every week on Lost in Space! I agree dolphins are smart, for ocean living mammals, but do you really believe they have a higher form of communication than man?

Posted By Jenni : February 20, 2011 4:14 pm

I guess we should all be grateful Irwin Allen didn’t ad deep sea monsters attacking sea going ships in this film, considering his love of monsters attacking the Robinson family every week on Lost in Space! I agree dolphins are smart, for ocean living mammals, but do you really believe they have a higher form of communication than man?

Posted By morlockjeff : February 20, 2011 4:26 pm

I would have enjoyed watching deep sea monsters attacking ships in this documentary and actually expected it at some point. I think what I meant to say about dolphins was that they SEEM more highly evolved than humans in their senses which are more acute and sensory and still an ongoing research topic for scientists.

Posted By morlockjeff : February 20, 2011 4:26 pm

I would have enjoyed watching deep sea monsters attacking ships in this documentary and actually expected it at some point. I think what I meant to say about dolphins was that they SEEM more highly evolved than humans in their senses which are more acute and sensory and still an ongoing research topic for scientists.

Posted By Medusa Morlock : February 20, 2011 4:51 pm

At one point when TNT was still making original movies, a biopic of Rachel Carson was on the docket. Might have been amusing to see her sole Hollywood adventure covered, though I’m sure it would have turned out more pretentious than anything else.

The characterization of many of the creatures as fodder for sportsmen’s bloodlust is unfortunate, but some things never change. People flocked to see Palin knocking off caribou in her recent TV documentary.

Very interesting post! I did have a soft spot for the West Coast Marineland park when I was growing up — I hope they *mostly* treated the animals well…

Posted By Medusa Morlock : February 20, 2011 4:51 pm

At one point when TNT was still making original movies, a biopic of Rachel Carson was on the docket. Might have been amusing to see her sole Hollywood adventure covered, though I’m sure it would have turned out more pretentious than anything else.

The characterization of many of the creatures as fodder for sportsmen’s bloodlust is unfortunate, but some things never change. People flocked to see Palin knocking off caribou in her recent TV documentary.

Very interesting post! I did have a soft spot for the West Coast Marineland park when I was growing up — I hope they *mostly* treated the animals well…

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2011 5:16 pm

The sensory levels of underwater animals have to be more advanced than humans due the nature of where they live. Dolphins’ natural communication skill is possibly more advanced than that of humans because it has to carry underwater, and can for miles in many cases, whales much more so. However, our superior intellect has led us to make up for our shortcomings in the natural communication area. It all began with drums, horns, mail, then the telegraph and then the telephone.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2011 5:16 pm

The sensory levels of underwater animals have to be more advanced than humans due the nature of where they live. Dolphins’ natural communication skill is possibly more advanced than that of humans because it has to carry underwater, and can for miles in many cases, whales much more so. However, our superior intellect has led us to make up for our shortcomings in the natural communication area. It all began with drums, horns, mail, then the telegraph and then the telephone.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2011 5:21 pm

As marine parks go, I think they have to treat their animals “mostly” well. The commodity they have are the animals. For them to be deeply damaged, in any apparent way, would harm their reputations, which would affect their business models. Long ago, this may not have so apparent. These days, people are much more conscious of animals being treated properly. Those marine parks that used to be solely for entertainment are geared more towards research and protection today. Old nature documantaries may have had something to do with that.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 20, 2011 5:21 pm

As marine parks go, I think they have to treat their animals “mostly” well. The commodity they have are the animals. For them to be deeply damaged, in any apparent way, would harm their reputations, which would affect their business models. Long ago, this may not have so apparent. These days, people are much more conscious of animals being treated properly. Those marine parks that used to be solely for entertainment are geared more towards research and protection today. Old nature documantaries may have had something to do with that.

Posted By Jenni : February 21, 2011 3:36 pm

Thanks for clarifying what you meant about dolphins and communication, Jeff.

Posted By Jenni : February 21, 2011 3:36 pm

Thanks for clarifying what you meant about dolphins and communication, Jeff.

Posted By The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of February 25 | Parallax View : February 25, 2011 2:01 pm

[...] it could possibly be as bad as I thought. But every reading sends my blood pressure higher.” The Movie Morlocks on Irwin Allen’s adaptation of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, not exactly a match made in [...]

Posted By The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of February 25 | Parallax View : February 25, 2011 2:01 pm

[...] it could possibly be as bad as I thought. But every reading sends my blood pressure higher.” The Movie Morlocks on Irwin Allen’s adaptation of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, not exactly a match made in [...]

Posted By JLewis : February 27, 2011 10:29 am

Belatedly read a bunch of articles here after being away for a while. Your images here are really great!

Cousteau’s THE SILENT WORLD, which wowed the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 suffers from some of the same problems you describe here. A whale gets harpooned (to put it out of its misery, per narration) and sharks are killed simply for feeding on the carcass and not for feeding on the people. Other things in that film don’t fit the later image of Cousteau The Environmentalist… BUT it is a product of its time.

Wrote a review on THE ANIMAL WORLD a while back on the Classic Film Union… oh, you will have a field day with THAT one! Talk about jumbled messes! The title you covered at least has more “structure” and a little less religious sermonizing. Love the dinosaur scenes in the other though.

Both THE SEA AROUND US and THE ANIMAL WORLD were obviously cashing in on Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures. In fact, RKO distributed most of the earlier Disney films and clearly saw how their initial nervousness about SEAL ISLAND and BEAVER VALLEY was unfounded… both brought in the gold at the box office and at Oscar time. NATURE’S HALF ACRE was also released by the time RKO took on Rachel Carson. This feature was an attempt for RKO to have a greater piece (and control) in the money pie. Likewise, Warner Brothers wanted to both cash in on this film’s success AND Disney’s True Life Adventures by backing ANIMAL WORLD. Both films are hopelessly dated today, but I can’t completely badmouth THE ANIMAL WORLD, despite all of its faults. It at least ATTEMPTS to suggest that some wildlife is threatened by man… also some animals can THINK… and hunting and harpooning is not always pretty.

Before backing THE ANIMAL WORLD, Warner Bros. enjoyed success in the late thirties and forties with some “Sports Parades” and Howard Hill one-reel shorts that showed fish, wild boars and some fowl getting speared or blasted in crisp black & white or glorious Technicolor. (Well… not in full detail… but hunting was shown to be FUN and relaxing nonetheless… and the critters “deserved” to go for some reason or another.) BOX OFFICE magazine praised many of these as “exciting”. Only after the war and all of the leaked concentration camp footage did some of these “tough love with Nature” clips lose their novelty value. A few clips from various Warner shorts were even “borrowed” for ANIMAL WORLD… Allen liked to cut his costs as much as possible.

Posted By JLewis : February 27, 2011 10:29 am

Belatedly read a bunch of articles here after being away for a while. Your images here are really great!

Cousteau’s THE SILENT WORLD, which wowed the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 suffers from some of the same problems you describe here. A whale gets harpooned (to put it out of its misery, per narration) and sharks are killed simply for feeding on the carcass and not for feeding on the people. Other things in that film don’t fit the later image of Cousteau The Environmentalist… BUT it is a product of its time.

Wrote a review on THE ANIMAL WORLD a while back on the Classic Film Union… oh, you will have a field day with THAT one! Talk about jumbled messes! The title you covered at least has more “structure” and a little less religious sermonizing. Love the dinosaur scenes in the other though.

Both THE SEA AROUND US and THE ANIMAL WORLD were obviously cashing in on Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures. In fact, RKO distributed most of the earlier Disney films and clearly saw how their initial nervousness about SEAL ISLAND and BEAVER VALLEY was unfounded… both brought in the gold at the box office and at Oscar time. NATURE’S HALF ACRE was also released by the time RKO took on Rachel Carson. This feature was an attempt for RKO to have a greater piece (and control) in the money pie. Likewise, Warner Brothers wanted to both cash in on this film’s success AND Disney’s True Life Adventures by backing ANIMAL WORLD. Both films are hopelessly dated today, but I can’t completely badmouth THE ANIMAL WORLD, despite all of its faults. It at least ATTEMPTS to suggest that some wildlife is threatened by man… also some animals can THINK… and hunting and harpooning is not always pretty.

Before backing THE ANIMAL WORLD, Warner Bros. enjoyed success in the late thirties and forties with some “Sports Parades” and Howard Hill one-reel shorts that showed fish, wild boars and some fowl getting speared or blasted in crisp black & white or glorious Technicolor. (Well… not in full detail… but hunting was shown to be FUN and relaxing nonetheless… and the critters “deserved” to go for some reason or another.) BOX OFFICE magazine praised many of these as “exciting”. Only after the war and all of the leaked concentration camp footage did some of these “tough love with Nature” clips lose their novelty value. A few clips from various Warner shorts were even “borrowed” for ANIMAL WORLD… Allen liked to cut his costs as much as possible.

Posted By morlockjeff : February 27, 2011 11:52 am

Thanks JSmith. I’ll check out your article on THE ANIMAL WORLD. I have been wanting to see that one for years for the dinosaur footage but now it holds additional interest due to Allen’s involvement. Glad the Warner Archive folks have made that one available too.

Posted By morlockjeff : February 27, 2011 11:52 am

Thanks JSmith. I’ll check out your article on THE ANIMAL WORLD. I have been wanting to see that one for years for the dinosaur footage but now it holds additional interest due to Allen’s involvement. Glad the Warner Archive folks have made that one available too.

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