Moby Dick (1956)

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Directed by John Huston
Written by Ray Bradbury and John Huston from the novel by Herman Melville
1956/USA
Moulin Productions
First viewing/Netflix rental

Captain Ahab: From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned whale.

In a time before the Save the Whale movement, John Huston captured the grandeur and deeper meaning of the Herman Melville classic novel.  Better yet, in the end it is the Whale, or make that Nature or an Omnipotent God, that triumphs.

The film is remarkably faithful to the novel in plot, setting and dialogue.  In 1841 a man (Richard Basehart) who asks us to call him Ishmael arrives in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  He is tired of life on shore and wants to find out what whaling is like.  At the inn, he is told he will have to share a bed.  Thus he meets Queequeg, a cannibal harpooner, and the two become fast friends.  They vow to ship out together and are hired for a three-year voyage on the Pequod.  Before the ship sails, a stranger called Elijah predicts disaster for the ship and its Captain.

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Pip: That ain’t no whale; that a great white god.

Early in the voyage, we see the camaraderie among the sailors and watch them work.  Eventually, Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) emerges from his cabin and announces a reward for the first man that spots the white whale named Moby Dick that cost him his leg.  Moby Dick is a renowned behemoth that has maimed more than one man and sank more than one ship.  The men are game but Starbuck (Leo Gann), the Chief Mate, is troubled.

He becomes more troubled when Ahab insists going after Moby Dick before concentrating on filling the ship’s hold and returning home.  But Starbucks idea of mutiny is not shared by the other men and Ahab carries on until Elijah’s prophecy is fulfilled.  With Orson Welles as a preacher who delivers a sermon on the story of Jonah.

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I didn’t have high hopes for this film as I love the novel but thought it would be impossible for any film to convey what makes it great.  Huston managed admirably however.  This is largely accomplished by skillful lifting of the actual language of the text and a production design that looks to be taken from 19th Century illustrations.  I’m not a huge Gregory Peck fan but he is ferocious and a perfect Ahab here.

Like the novel, this film is more about Ahab’s blasphemy in trying to get vengeance on Fate, Nature, or God than it is a simple whaling adventure.  Huston captures the biblical underpinnings of the novel brilliantly while keeping the action engaging as well.  The whale hunts were not too graphic for me.  Recommended.

This post is part of The Animals in Film Blogathon being hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.  Other excellent posts on this theme can be found here.

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11 thoughts on “Moby Dick (1956)

  1. This is one instance where I prefer the film to the novel. However, I admire you for (a) finishing the novel, and (b) liking it.

    I agree that John Huston does a remarkable job with this film adaptation, and I love that Gregory Peck is Ahab. Darn it – you’ve made me want to see this again soon!

    • It’s funny. The book took me a long time to get through because I would get bogged down in the long whale treatises. But I always came back to it because of the sheer beauty of the prose.

  2. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] THE ANIMALS IN FILM BLOGATHON HAS NOW ARRIVED – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

  3. I love the book too, though I also got bogged down at times in the whale sections! I remember this being a powerful adaptation and that Peck was very good as Ahab. Peck has a small part as Father Mapple at the start in a TV remake released in 2000 which wasn’t very good, but it was great to see him in that role.

    There’s a silent version with John Barrymore where he plays an Ahab with a drink problem who seems more interested in girls than he is in the whale – this was also remade as a talkie but sadly I haven’t managed to see that version as yet.

  4. This film is visually beautiful – we really feel we are in the 19th century, as you said. But I have to confess that I was rooting for the whale the whole time!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le

  5. Thanks for participating in the blogathon, and thanks for introducing me to this film. I’ve always heard of it, but I’ve never seen it. I must watch it soon though. I enjoyed reading your excellent article on it.

    I’ve also just announced another blogathon. This time the idea was proposed to be my another fellow blogger. Anyway I would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/announcing-the-joan-crawford-blogathon/

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