Moby Dick (1956)
The number one source of stories for movies has always been popular novels. Hit films have been culled from two literary sources; recent best sellers and perennial classics. One of the most famous novels usually found in an English lit class has been translated to film many times in the past, ‘Moby Dick’. Originally penned by Herman Melville way back in 1851 the cinematic version has joined its literary predecessor in becoming a fondly regarded American classic. Generations of students have rolled their eyes over the prospect of wading through the most famous ‘fish tale’ ever. Okay, I realize a whale is an aquatic mammal but the point remains. This remains the epitome of stories that delve into dark recesses of the human mind examining the destructive force of uncontrollable obsession. The film admittedly suffers from the usual foibles surrounding a transfer of a novel to the silver screen. Collectively known as ‘dramatic license’ it is the necessity to alter characters and circumstances in the book to accommodate the differences in presentational requirements. It is virtually impossible to bring a book to life on the screen completely intact. It is always necessary to streamline the content in order to fit the length restrictions and maintain a consistent level of excitement. Putting those matters aside this movie version of ‘Moby Dick’ retains the excitement, drama and psychological thrills through the intervening years. Naturally the best way to experience this ageless story is to sit down and read the novel but that still does not remove the incentive to watch the 1956 film. There was a television miniseries made in 1998 featuring Patrick Stewart. In many ways that version kept some of the more salient aspects of the novel but there is a charm and traditional feel to the older movie that keeps its reputation as a cinematic treasure intact. You might want to really indulge yourself and watch both versions as a double feature some long weekend.
The opening lines from the novel are such an iconic piece of literature that no presentation of the story could precede without them; "Call me Ishmael" as the protagonist and first person perspective of the story is known. Ishmael (Richard Basehart) is a young man with some merchant marine experience who, discontent with life on land, signs on to the Whaling ship, ‘Pequod’. It was owned by a consortium of businessmen sailing out of New Bedford under the command of the dark and mysterious Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck). His leg had been torn from him by an incredibly large white whale referred to as ‘Moby Dick’. Consumed by vengeance Ahab now uses the ship in his charge to seek out the leviathan to kill it. Early on in the voyage the captain swears a blood oath with the harpooners for the life of the whale that broke his body and mind.
Much of the opening act of the film is concerned with the life on shore in a waling town and on board a working whaling vessel. This is not a movie intended for card carrying members of PETA on any number of anti-whaling organizations’. You have to keep in mind that the eighteen hundreds was a time when whale oil and other byproducts derived from whales were crucial to the burgeoning industry revolution and the source of economic stability for the New England towns that hoisted the industry. The ships did more than just hunt and killed these gigantic creatures; they were floating factories that processed the corpses rendering the oil from the blubber down below deck, in a hellish scene of fire and metal. The men worked for an agreed upon percentage of the profits but once the scent of the great white whale it gotten Ahab’s obsession quickly infects the entire crew.
The set design here is flawless brining you back in time to nineteenth century New England and the sailing ships that took off from those ports for arduous years on the high seas. The pulpit of the town’s church carved to resemble the bow of a ship, the homes topped by their traditional widow’s walks all combine to a flavor derived in the spirit of the novel. On board the daily routine necessary to maintain the ship is paced by the rugged men singing ancient sea chants to keep in synch. This remarkable level of detail is attributed to one of Hollywood royalty, John Huston directing one of his most memorable works. His trademark drive and emotional intensity is exhibited here in full force. True to his filmmaking methodology Huston sets the stage and provides the context trusting in the abilities of his cast to tell the story. Richard Basehart was close to the beginning of what would become a long and illustrious career. The true emotional heart of the film belongs to one of the greatest American actors of any generation, Gregory Peck. This is an actor who commits every fiber of his being to the full presentation of his character. He takes the audience long with him as Ahab plunges ever deeper into his madness, blinded by his quest for vengeance. There is an overwhelming intensity here that will never be matched by any other presentation if the story. Peck casts his own amiable personality aside as he dons the personality of a man willing to pull his entire crew to the sea’s bottom in order to satisfy his own vendetta. The screenplay was born in turmoil co-written by Huston and famed science fiction author, Ray Bradbury. The feud between the men during the creation of the script is legendary but it produced one of the most effective treatments of Melville’s story ever made. The attention to detail extended to the memorable cinematography by Oswald Morris. He washed out the color rebuilding each frame in a color desaturated muted look. It gave the feel of watching something well worn by time, perfect for the story. Recently Ray Bradbury passed away so this is a perfect film to watch to show the diversity of his genius.