Wednesday, November 16, 2016

John Huston's Moby Dick ( 1956 )

"At sea one day you'll smell land where there'll be no land, and on that day Ahab will go to his grave, but he'll rise again within the hour. He will rise and beckon. Then all - all save one - shall follow. "

Ishmael ( Richard Basehart ), a young sailor, hears these prophetic words from a stranger named Elijah only moments before boarding the Pequod, a whaling vessel sailing out of New Bedford. Once onboard, he discovers that the pilot of the vessel, Captain Ahab ( Gregory Peck ) has set out to sea obsessed with one purpose kill the great white whale that took his leg. 
Herman Melville's 1851 novel "Moby Dick" is a massive thesis of good and evil, man's struggle against the malevolent forces of nature told from the perspective of a seaman. 

"Translating a work of this scope into a screenplay was a staggering proposition. Looking back now, I wonder if it is possible to do justice to Moby Dick on film," pondered director John Huston in his autobiography "An Open Book". 

But if ever there was a man who tried to capture on film the essence of this wicked beast it was Huston, who had first read the book when he was sixteen. He plunged into the depths of Melville's writing to seek out the very heart and soul of Moby Dick. Once found, he pierced its core and cut away at its blubber till Moby Dick was exposed raw. This he then brought to the screen. 

"To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned whale!"
With the aide of a stellar cast, and an imaginative screenwriter ( Ray Bradbury ), John Huston meticulously crafted a stirring film that he had hoped would inspire audiences to revisit Melville's novel. No detail was neglected, even a monochromatic overlay on the Technicolor was used to help evoke the quality of 19th century folk paintings. 

It was Bradbury who chartered the direct course of narration for Moby Dick, retaining the essential Melville dialogue as well as the transcendental subtext of the novel while condensing the colossus piece into a two-hour film. By suggesting much, and explaining little, Bradbury gave Huston's Moby Dick a power which no other film adaptation made prior to or since has been able to match. 

At the time of its initial release, however, critics harpooned the film, not only for its "strange, subdued color scheme" ( a typically narrow-minded Bosley Crowther remark ), but for the casting of Gregory Peck whom some considered too shallow for the role. 

Huston initially saw his father, Walter Huston, as the perfect Captain Ahab, but after Walter died in 1950, John was forced to seek another actor who, potentially, had the wrath of Ahab within him. He found Gregory Peck, and he was always proud of that choice, believing Peck conveyed the exact quality he wanted for the seaman. "Here was a man who shook his fist at God," is how Huston described Ahab.

Peck's performance does indeed demonstrate immense power. Ahab is clearly a man bottling up his frustration in not besting the albino porpoise. He's a man struggling with his sanity and trying to hold the reign on his vengeance. Gregory Peck deftly avoiding turning Ahab into a cliche of the mentally unstable sea captain, as Trevor Howard did with Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty ( 1962 ). Although Peck's Ahab is mad, it is a madness that is dangerously contagious.

"It is an evil voyage, I tell thee. If Ahab has his way, neither thee nor me, nor any member of this ship's company will ever see home again."

The other cast members of Moby Dick serve only as jib sails, helping to push the film towards its climax. These include Leo Genn as first mate Starbuck, a God-fearing Quaker who tries to convince Ahab to abandon his quest for selfish avengement; Harry Andrews as second mate Stubb; Friedrich von Ledebur, as the tattooed islander Queequeg; and Richard Basehart as Ishmael, the narrator. Orson Welles also has a brief appearance as a preacher who gives the sermon to the crew before their departure. Alas, this scene lingered on too long and should have been edited from the final cut for it for it deadened the film's pace. 
Moby Dick keeps a steady slow beat throughout its first hour until it heeds the coxswain's call to quicken pace and then races towards an exciting climax, where audiences witness the fulfillment of Elijah's prophecy and glimpse the power of the great white whale that Ahab talked so much about. 

Years before CGI would take the place of imaginative filming - and since whales were known for being notoriously difficult to work with - John Huston opted to use rubber models for most of the scenes involving Moby Dick. This alternative method was damned realistic, and the resulting finale, coupled with Philip Sainton's magnificent score, leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.


  1. My family used to watch this movie a lot growing up, as my mom was a huge Richard Basehart fan. I always thought Gregory Peck was great in this, the perfect Ahab. He was scary and powerful. I love when he's walking around on deck while they're trying to sleep, and the St. Elmo's Fire scene. And the whale does look great! Hard to believe that as just a rubber model!

    Great review!

    1. The films we grow up's funny which ones we associate as "childhood" films. I wouldn't think of Moby Dick as being family-fare, but I can see how it would make a lasting impression on a youngster. If I had seen it years ago, I would have wanted to be a sea-captain growing up ( but one with both legs intact! ). Thanks for your comment!

    2. Interesting. To me, much as I respect John Huston, I found the first scene with Welles as Father Mapple is SO powerful that it overshadows the rest of the movie.

    3. Always nice to meet a fan of my amazing uncle John 🎭

  2. Watching walk on that wooden peg or whatever it was brought tears to my eyes.