Directed by John Huston
Written by Ray Bradbury and John Huston from the novel by Herman Melville
First viewing/Netflix rental
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.
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.
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.