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Moby Dick - 1956

Moby Dick 1956

Moby Dick - released June 27, 1956. DIrected by John Huston

John Huston directed Moby Dick in Ireland (and in Bedford, Mass), with screenwriter Ray Bradbury dragged along (which Bradbury wrote of in Green Shadows, White Whale: A Novel of Ray Bradbury's Adventures Making Moby Dick with John Huston in Ireland - Amazon ) also included in the trip to Ireland were a whole coterie of Huston's friends, family, and of course a film crew.

Instead of an epic multi-hour dramatization of the gigantic Herman Melville novel (my Oxford Univ. Press edition is 627 pages), Huston and Bradbury trimmed the tale down into essentials and packed it into a brisk 116 minutes.

Moby Dick 1956

"I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!"

Gregory Peck is Captain Ahab, intimidating and frightening to his crew, but also half-nuts and obsessed with locating a particular albino sperm whale that is a legend among the whaling ships that criss-cross the oceans.These ships are at sea for years at a time as they harvest the enormous sea beasts for their flesh and especially, oil.

This particular albino whale - Moby Dick - bit off Ahab's left leg years ago and this has put Ahab into an existential crisis that has got, you might say, a little out of hand. When Ahab is challenged that it is blasphemous to believe a creature which acted out of instinct has been a personal instrument of persecution against him, Ahab explains his understanding and the impetus for his mission:

"All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. ....there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! ....He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me." 

Richard Basehart (as Ishmael) is the narrator (though he doesn't actually do much narrating), and eventually, he will be the only survivor of the crew. His portrayal of Ishmael is at the center of the tale and part of Huston's humor that appears all around the edges of this somber subject:

Whaling ship owner / recruiter: "Are you the man to pitch a harpoon down a whale's throat and jump in after it?"

Ishmael: "I am! [long pause] ...that is, if it should prove positively indispensable that I should do so."

At times the crew is as obsessed as Ahab about getting the whale, and at other times recoils at the cost that is exacted as they search the ocean. Leo Genn is Starbuck, level-headed and rational and often the only officer on board the Pequod that isn't infected with Ahab's craziness (Starbuck wants the ship to fill up it's storage space with whale and then go home, mission accomplished, to Nantucket). But Starbuck will change, too, by the end.

The White Whale

The movie picks up on a few of Melville's novel's questions about how to view Moby Dick and his impressive killing record: is he a fiendishly intelligent animal, or just a big brute creature challenged by foolish small men on fragile wooden ships? Is the crew (and especially Ahab) animated in the hunt by a superstitious vexation bordering on psychosis or is their some occult (or religious) significance (and power) to this almost magical whale that can appear, disappear and outfox whaling ships year after year? Calvinism, transcidentalism, rationalism, paganism (particularly in the character of Queequeg, played by Friedrich von Ledebur) and 'the law of the sea' all get mixed together in this big brew of New England anxiety.

Huston's direction has plenty of action sequences (and impressive 1956-era special effects) but he has tailored the movie to also serve as a homage to the task of sailors on wooden ships. From the early Nantucket scenes on shore and then onboard the long sea voyage of the Pequod, we don't have the usual antiseptic pirate-movie scenes of frilled clothing and billowing sails, but instead often grimy and exhausting toil of living and working at sea, and the unique culture of seafaring that is a different world far away from land.

Moby Dick 1956Moby Dick 1956Moby Dick 1956Moby Dick 1956

Moby Dick


Original Page December 8, 2015
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