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‘Under the Caribbean’ On The Big Screen, Film Night at The Grant Museum

By James M Heather, on 25 January 2012

It’s only January, and I think I’ve met my Speedo quota for the year already. I’ve not been hanging out at the Lido, but watching the latest movie aired on the Big Screen at UCL, with Dr Joe Cain and the Grant Museum of Zoology.

Cramming into a lecture theatre after hours doesn’t feel so surreal this time around, but this month’s film certainly does. Under the Caribbean (or Unternehmen Xarifa in its original German) made a splash when it aired in 1954, hooking an Oscar among other accolades, for bringing dramatic underwater footage to the silver screen for perhaps the first time.

This film follows the exploits of the handsome couple of Hans and Lotte Hass. Along with a plucky crew aboard the sturdy yacht ‘Xarifa’, the Hasses sail their way from the Caribbean to the Galapagos Islands in search of sperm whales.

All sounds well and good, except that it’s completely barmy.

The film is portrayed as if it were a documentary, yet really the film revolves around a ridiculously scripted storyline, which swerves from the silly (man rod-fishing on the sea floor), to the dangerous (“the best way to frighten sharks off is to just swim right at them”).

It’s hard to know what aspects of the film are the funniest, or the most absurd. As a documentary it is laughable, as vast swathes of the film are clearly staged. As a scientific venture, it is deplorable: when not kidnapping penguins or hypnotising fish, the crew seem to spend most of their time poking at assorted sea creatures with pointy sticks, before chopping off as much coral as they can carry back to the boat.

That said, it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp of a movie, which generates some interesting contrasts with modern nature footage. Parts of it were genuinely revolutionary for the time – particularly the first underwater footage of sperm whales swimming. However, I doubt anyone would make a contemporary documentary where the presenter of the show chases a sea-lion into the sea while trying to make friends.

This was a lovely film to watch. The story was just the right shade of ridiculous to be hilarious and, in parts, the filmography is still genuinely amazing to this day. While the scientific insights into life under the waves may be questionable, the appreciation of its beauty is not.

As always, the evening winds down with a glass of wine in the lovely Grant Museum, which has now made me feel no movie night is complete without chit-chatting about the film over a jar of moles.

Ending the night in among the preserved and the reconstructed gives particular poignance to one of my favourite lines from the movie, spoken by Hans: “we will bring back something more important than dead animals preserved in alcohol: knowledge”. Such as the knowledge, perhaps, that all people need to do to be able to speak underwater is to speak really clearly. Who knew?

James Heather is a PhD student in UCL Division of Infection and Immunity.

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