Rachel Carson vs. 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 disaster genre films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).  

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 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. But Carson 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. (The Sea Around Us airs on TCM on Wednesday, April 22, 2020 at 1:15 am ET.)

Writer Rachel Carson is considered a pioneer of the modern environmentalist movement.

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? If you have any doubts, the portentous narration featuring two voice talents (Don Forbes and Theodor von Eltz) drive 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.

Hollywood producer-director Irwin Allen circa the 1950s

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 basic concepts of her book and presenting authoritative data about the ocean, Allen’s script was full of outmoded ideas, 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 scene from the Oscar winning Best Documentary, The Sea Around Us (1953).

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.

Irwin Allen and an assistant inspect film footage during the editing of The Sea Around Us (1953).

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 educational film 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 underwater 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.”

A storyboard illustration from the 1953 documentary The Sea Around Us, produced and directed by Irwin Allen.

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. 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 unenlightened and cringe-inducing from our privileged perspective of 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 about 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.

A moray eel is among the fascinating denizens of the deep in the 1953 documentary, The Sea Around Us.

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 divers with spearguns as the narrator boasts, “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.”

THE SEA AROUND US, underwater documentary, directed by Irwin Allen, 1953.

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, 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. 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 humans. 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.” We get to see how wacky they can be in their waterworld sideshows.

The Gurnard, a type of walking fish, is featured in the 1953 documentary The Sea Around Us, based on the Rachel Carson book.

Yet, for all the dumbed down philosophizing, willy-nilly continuity and failed attempts at whimsy, there is also some truly stunning cinematography on display in The Sea Around Us. Footage of the Great Barrier Reef, porcupine 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 documentary that is prophetic in more ways than one when you consider the long trajectory of his movie career (this was his first directorial debut). He chooses to end The Sea Around Us 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.”  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?

Seals are among the aquatic life featured in The Sea Around Us (1953), an Oscar-winning documentary.

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 the documentary reached audiences which might not have read any of her books. It was also 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.”

Spanish lobby card for “El Mar Que Nos Rodea” (The Sea Around Us)

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 (EPA).

Excellent underwater photography is one of the highlights of the 1953 documentary, The Sea Around Us.

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 juxtaposition of past and present, compare The Sea Around Us to some of the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary over the past decade – The Cove (2009), Gasland (2010), Virunga (2014), Honeyland (2019) –  to see how far we’ve come in that category.    The Sea Around Us was released on DVD by Warner Bros. as part of their Archive Collection in November 2010. It is a no-frills release with no extra features and is not available on Blu-Ray at this time.

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