Moby Dick (1956)

When it’s on: Monday, 7 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

I’ll follow him around the Horn, and around the Norway maelstrom, and around perdition’s flames before I give him up.

In preparation for watching Moby Dick, I downloaded Herman Melville’s novel onto my Kindle with the intention of ploughing through it and comparing text with film. Sadly, I’ve only made it to the 10% mark so far, quite enjoying what I’ve read though it’s a tough-going tome in places, pages and pages of nothing much happening yet much in terms of foreboding and whalecraft.

Adapting Melville into a film was always going to be a tall order, though the book’s classic status ensures many have tried. Presumably one of the main problems is the story’s lack of romance, the long passages involving descriptions of life on board the Pequod and the way everything takes place right at the end. John Huston’s 1956 entry is nevertheless a manful effort. The attempt to outline the crew’s relationship with their captain, Ahab, brings to life the occasionally claustrophobic, always mutually dependent world of the nineteenth century whaler. Moby Dick is told from the perspective of Ishmael (Richard Basehart), who’s recounting the tale as the Pequod’s sole survivor. A cypher with the task of describing the characters around him, Ishmael isn’t the most interesting seafarer, but then he’s never meant to be. Much better value are Leo Genn as the Pequod’s first mate, Starbuck, tattooed harpooner Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur) and inevitably Ahab himself.

The story opens with the Pequod’s crew steadily assembling in Nantucket. They attend church service before they go, a great scene in which the cameras roams along the pews, picking out plaques dedicated to the dead (all have perished at sea, a warning if ever there was one) before focusing on Orson Welles’s sermon. Welles is as ever brilliant value in his cameo, pontificating from a pulpit that’s dressed up as a masthead – apparently, he took the part in order to fund his own stage version of the book (I always love looking into the reasons for Welles popping up in films; it was always to help finance his own projects).

Soon enough, they’re at sea, searching for whales whilst Ahab glowers in his cabin. Half an hour passes before we get our first proper glimpse of him, all wooden legged and scarred face, played by Gregory Peck. Ahab gets the best speeches in the script (my favourite bit of dialogue heads this entry), driven ever by his desire to get revenge against the enormous white whale, Moby Dick, that took his leg. True to his motivation throughout the story, Ahab clashes with his crew often – they’re in it for profit and have no interest in his vengeance, but he’s the captain and they follow him sullenly, never fully aware of how far he’s prepared to take the men in realising his goal. There’s several marvellous scenes that illustrate the tension – one in which Starbuck prepares for mutiny, another when Ahab refuses to help a boat that’s searching for the captain’s son.

Two aspects stood against Moby Dick, which experienced a troubled shoot and escalating costs. One is the effects work involving the whale. Plenty was invested in getting this right, but Moby often enough looks like what it is – a model – and pre-CGI, it must have been almost impossible to make the thing work. The original model was 75 feet long and floated out to sea, leaving the crew to rely on ‘whale parts’ for the shots where it interacts with actors, and miniatures otherwise. Secondly, Peck’s performance, which earned mixed reactions from audiences used to seeing him as a hero. Generally cast as the romantic lead, Peck toned down his handsome looks with Ahab’s scarring and an unhinged, shouty performance and, whilst there may have been more obvious choices (James Mason springs to mind) he’s actually pretty good, convincing as the captain with terrifying levels of obsession.

Moby Dick: ***

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4 Replies to “Moby Dick (1956)”

  1. Like yourself, I’ve tried to get through the book but I’ve given up on it twice so far – it really is heavy going.

    Huston’s movie, on the other hand, is very accessible and I love the odd drained colours he tried to achieve. I was lucky enough to pick up a Fox European DVD of the movie some time back which presents the movie in its correct 1.66:1 ratio.

    I quite liked Peck in the role of Ahab, and I reckon he was always good when cast in less than heroic parts.

  2. Melville for young Americans sounds a bit like the moment in British schools when the English teacher hands out those dusty old copies of Dickens – brilliant stuff that has a lot to say about the human condition, but gosh, not when you’re 12…

    As you say, Peck’s absolutely fine, but I really like Leo Genn as Starbuck. Apparently in the book (not that I’d know) he has a much smaller role and I like to believe Genn was just too good to not give him more to do.

    Thanks as always for the comment. Time to watch The Iron Curtain…

    1. Leo Genn was always good in my opinion, and the supporting cast in Moby Dick all shine to some extent. I think that’s what helps movies of the period to remain strong, good character actors who always brought something interesting to the productions they were involved in.

      And yes, check out The Iron Curtain if you’ve got access to it.

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