Amphibian Man (1962): Cousteau, Disney and a lovable gill-man from the USSR
When Hollywood was sweating its guts out to lure Americans away from TV screens with all sorts of cinematic spectacle, Soviets set out to “catch up and outdo”. Thus Amphibian Man (Человек-амфибия, 1962), directed by Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennadi Kazansky, became the first fiction film in the history of the world cinema mostly shot under water.
The fantastic novel by Aleksandr Belyaev, the film’s source, was tantalising Americans as early as in the 1940s, but back then filming under water sounded like a subject for a fantastic novel of its own.
When the news about the Soviet project reached the USA, The New York Times published a sardonic article, remarking that Walt Disney himself had to give up the idea of adapting Amphibian Man due to all the difficulties with underwater filming, and Russians with their prehistoric film equipment are pushing luck.
However, the film that even at the studio was considered to be a recipe for disaster and that started with scuba diving lessons for the whole crew, ended up as a leader of Soviet distribution of 1962.
Amphibian Man is a story of Ichtyandr (Vladimir Korenev), a boy who was born with lungs disorder, which drives his father Dr. Salvator (Nikolay Simonov), a great scientist and surgeon, to a desperate experiment – transplanting shark gills onto the boy’s neck.
Ichtyandr grows up on the bottom of the sea and dolphins are the young man’s best friends. One day, he saves a beautiful girl Gutiere (Anastasiya Vertinskaya), who ends up over board in his water possessions. Having tasted the earthly delights, the hero is drawn to terra firma, longing to see his beloved again.
Amphibian Man strongly transgresses narrative patterns of occidental sci-fi of that time, so please don’t imagine a Creature from the Black Lagoon kind of thing. Ichtyandr is far from being a monster; on the contrary, the film quickly made the young and handsome man with exotic looks a sex symbol of the Soviet screen. The figure of the mad scientist, who tries himself in the role of the Creator, also undergoes a distortion here: Dr. Salvator performs the operation not in the search of vanity, but out of empathy for his son. Finally, monsters usually have to take pretty girls by force, but Ichtyandr’s feelings towards beautiful Gutiere are reciprocal from the very beginning.
Amphibian Man is an obvious exemplar of what became known as Russian fantastika, a very indigenous cultural phenomenon that evolved within the bounds of the Iron Curtain, largely unexposed to external influences. It can hardly be labelled a genre; and at the same time it crosses over with science fiction, horror, fairy- or folk-take film adaptation, all these elements being enclosed in a unique cinematic form.
What I personally admire Russian fantastika films for is that they usually dared to be very un-Soviet. These films were letting both film-makers and viewers to forget about ideology and propaganda for a while and dive into the world of fantasy.
In the case of our example, it is also very curious how the film tries to portray life abroad. Set in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Amphibian Man uses actors with foreign looks, costumes exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness and jazzy music.
Arts Council of course scolded the film for all that, but the viewer was mesmerised. Amphibian Man made Vertinskaya a Soviet pin-up girl, Korenev was receiving massive fan mail, and everybody was humming a provocative jazz song from its soundtrack:
“We all would like to sink to the bottom