Silent World, The (1957): Jacques Cousteau’s Oscar-Winning Documentary

When diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau released his documentary The Silent World in 1956, it was a novelty.


SILENT WORLD, Jacques Cousteau, 1956
Courtesy Everett Collection

Jacques Cousteau in his documentary ‘The Silent World.’

The color film, co-directed by Cousteau, then 45, and Louis Malle, then 24, and edited from footage taken from excursions on Cousteau’s trusty research vessel Calypso, revealed the strange majesty of ocean life. Audiences couldn’t get enough of 20-foot sharks, octopuses, fluorescent fish, porpoises and manta rays cavorting in turquoise waters amid shadowy shipwrecks and grottos.

At the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, the film won the Palme d’Or — the only documentary to earn the honor until 2004, when Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 took the top prize.

It was released in the U.S. by Columbia Pictures on September 24, 1956, and earned $3 million at the box office, an impressive figure for that time.

On March 27, 1957, it won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

Cousteau also co-invented the Aqua-Lung used in the scuba diving sequences, and discovered dolphins’ use of echolocation.

Later on, he earned two more Oscars for his docus, and hosted from 1966 to 1976 the ABC show The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which made him a household name in America.

He died in Paris of a heart attack in 1997, two weeks after his 87th birthday.