The Cinematic Legacy of Jacques Cousteau

The man, the myth, the legend, and his persistent influence on screen. 

Since The Silent World nabbed the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1956, the name Jacques Cousteau has been synonymous with marine exploration. And while it’s easy to get lost in his prolific resume (which includes a stint as a spy with the French Resistance and co-inventing the aqualung), Cousteau’s legacy is undeniably one of influence; of sharing something he loved with the public and subsequently helping them fall in love with it, too. His work, on-screen and off, inspired a generation to take up scuba diving, to marvel at the alien beauty of undersea landscapes, and to become alert to the man-made problems that threatened their existence.

Cousteau was, bluntly put, pretty much singlehandedly responsible for popularizing modern marine conservation as we know it today. Which, last time we checked, makes him a huge fucking badass.

Of all Cousteau’s documentaries, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was perhaps his most influential. The docu-series premiered in 1968 and brought the exploits of the Calypso and her heroic (and stylish) crew into the living rooms of thousands of eager viewers, a feat unmet by earlier nonfiction oceanographic efforts like Thirty Leagues Under the Sea (1914) and The Sea Around Us (1953). 

The series ran for seven years and featured pioneering underwater cinematography, a gripping sense of adventurism and (if you were watching stateside) the dulcet tones of Rod Serling. Given Serling’s then-fresh work on The Twilight Zone, I can’t imagine of a better narrator to shepherd starry-eyed viewers through this strange new world that had been lurking, just out of sight, right under their noses.

Cousteau’s influence is such that it is damn near impossible to depict oceanography in fiction without making a passing reference to the man. And of course, this is to say nothing of Cousteau’s role in countless technical innovations in underwater cinematography. All to say: cinema is greatly indebted to Cousteau, in large part because the aquatic activity he emboldened in his documentaries resonated (and continues to resonate) with untold numbers of filmmakers and audiences alike. 

So, in honor of the 50th anniversary of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, let’s dive into the cinematic legacy (and influences) of cinema’s favorite aquanaut [ . . . ] 

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