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"We are all killers, on land and on sea," wrote Herman Melville more than
100 years ago. But the artistic failure of a recent television adaptation
of his greatest work shows that some are killers, too, on screen. Movie
makers. Butchers. Their guts are now gorged with Moby
"Majestic" raved "TV Guide" about USA Network's production of Melville's book. Reading that review I had a fantasy where Captain Ahab, with his sublime limp, walks into the magazine's office, shoves director John Huston's 1956 film of Moby Dick into the VCR, points to the screen and defiantly exclaims:
"There's majesty for you . . . "
. . . in the faces of men. Huston's film benefits from its intelligent casting of the seamen. The actors in the recent production are just pretty-boy imports from Los Angeles, rabble-rousers lacking the dignity that is gained from a lifetime of duty. But that dignity is plainly visible on the rugged faces of the men in the earlier film. One rarely sees that anymore.
. . . in the faces of women, too. The images of the women suffering as they watch their men go off to sea are utterly devastating, they hold so much emotional depth, so much beauty. The attention to detail in Huston's film is striking: the hairs on the chins of the old women, the tired, thick-skinned expressions of the wives and widows, the heavy shawls covering their heads.
. . . in the performances. Over 40 years ago when Orson Welles gave his performance as Father Mapple (a role which only a person with a special kind of magnificence could successfully take on), Gregory Peck might have been busily preparing for his role as Captain Ahab in the same film. What a testament to Peck's stature as one of our leading actors that throughout his career he could play not only Captain Ahab but also, in the recent production, Father Mapple.
. . . in the color. Huston's film is in Technicolor, a technique which produced colors not even seen in nature. The sky is now blue now red now green. The water is brown, pink, gray. Colors blend. Colors clash. By comparison, how banal the colors of our post-Technicolor world!
. . . in the mouth. The seamen have the exquisite mouths of pipe-smokers. The upper lip tight and stiff after so many hours pulled down in the puff.
. . . in the eyes. My favorite scene is where Peck as Captain Ahab famously proclaims: "Speak not to me of blasphemy. I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." The lighting, the acting, everything here is superb. The camera is focused tightly on Peck's face. The stark appearance of his eyes -- the tense, black irises all surrounded by gleaming white -- seems to reveal the subtext of the story. His eyes electrify!
John Huston's film says more in its two hours than USA Network's says in four; it suggests a lot and explains little, whereas the latter tries to explain a lot but says nothing. A great film, it doesn't butcher Melville's Moby Dick but adds to its power.
Some critics panned this pic when it came out - Peck too wooden, the script
too cliched, etc, etc. Don't believe a word of it. I saw this one when I was
8 or 9, and for years I watched it every time it came on TV - even in B&W!
Peck isn't wooden, he's intense and fascinating (my favorite scene: in his
cabin, saying to Starbuck, "That bed is a coffin"). The language may sound
stilted, but it's MELVILLE'S, and the cast sink into it with conviction.
Some critic (I don't know which) has said that Moby Dick (the book) is an "uncomfortable masterpiece" - or something like that - meaning that it's a hard pill to swallow. The movie is bound to be a hard pill for many viewers as well. But that's their loss. Huston's movie is a great big powerful thing - you believe in Peck's crazy passion, in Starbuck's gentleness, in Ishmael and Quequeg's bond, in the evil of the whale, even.
Another favorite sequence: the Pequot becalmed, the crew lying about under the intense sun, slowly going crazy. The climactic chase is superb and thrilling, of course; what it all adds up to is a film about the elements, and our relationship to them. The whale is just the biggest of a whole slew that constantly threaten to destroy us. Nature, our natures - all the things we fight against with our intelligence, that threaten to engulf us.
Beautiful film, one of Huston's best. I find the analogy with Hitler/Nazis in an earlier comment very interesting. Another would be with an earlier Huston film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - another film about people taking terrible chances for reasons that don't stand up to a lot of examination, whose biggest obstacle turns out to be themselves. By the way, will someone please rerelease Moby Dick in a restored version so we can get a really good look at all that glorious Technicolor?
It would be impossible to make a movie that came up to the standard of
the novel "Moby-Dick", but this film does a fine job of capturing some
of the most important themes, and of telling a selection of the key
parts of the story in an interesting way. It would be a temptation for
any film-maker to put the focus on the action and the special effects,
and thus ruin the heart of the book by downplaying its themes, as so
many recent films have done with other classic material. Instead, John
Huston's version concentrates on bringing out many of the complex
internal and external conflicts of Captain Ahab, in sketching the crew
members and their reactions to Ahab's monomania, and in portraying the
atmosphere of frequent tedium, growing tension, and occasional dread
aboard the 'Pequod'.
Richard Basehart's mild, pleasant demeanor makes Ishmael an appropriate mirror for the events and characters on the ship. Gregory Peck does rather well in the very challenging role of Ahab. Ahab is one of the most carefully-designed and demanding characters in literature, and lesser actors would simply be an embarrassment in the part. On screen, there is much to Ahab that just does not come across, and Peck's performance has to be judged with that in mind.
Leo Genn makes his scenes as Starbuck count, and several of the other crew members are portrayed well, albeit in much smaller parts. As Father Mapple, Orson Welles has only one scene, but it is an important one, in that it sets up some of the vital themes of the story ahead. Welles was an ideal choice, and his scene in the church is one scene that does come up to the high standard of Melville's novel.
While there may indeed be some areas in which this version falls short, and it's fair to point them out, it would be pretty difficult to improve on it in a cinema version of the story. And if taken on its own, it fits together well, making generally good choices as to what material would fit together and would work on screen, and in using the photography and settings to create the right atmosphere. For those who appreciate the depth of the original story, this has more than enough to make it worth watching.
If you have ever read the Herman Melville story of Moby Dick, then you will know how hard it must have been for John Huston to turn it into film. Thanks to Ray Bradbury's screenplay and great acting, this film became a classic. That it is not in the top 250 IMDB rated films is a shame. I hope that this is due to it's limited showings and therefore not being seen by many of this site's users. From the start to the finish the film is well paced. The casting of Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab was wise. He commands the role well. Orson Welles appearance as the minister is also a treat to behold. Welles shows that he can add so much to a film whether it be a small role or a large one. Special effects are the only thing that could have been a bit better done. However, in 1956, depicting a great white whale with an attitude was not an easy accomplishment film making wise. This film does go into the relationship between man and God, so some folks will no doubt be prejudiced against the film. Keep in mind the story's time period and locale. The seafaring men of New England really did once hold God close to their heart. Melville's use of a whale to depict the struggle was good. Huston getting it onto film was even better. Sorry, I like the film better than the book. MM
"Moby Dick" is one of the great adventure films of all time, and one of
the greatest psychological stories ever told. Ahab & his quest for the
White Whale have reached the status of a cultural icon, but this film
was wonderful when it was released, remains wonderful today, and will I
think stand the test of time well into the future.
I'd heard that even Gregory Peck himself had been talked into believing that his performance was 'wooden', but that is hogwash. This is probably Peck's greatest performance, and that's saying something.
"Moby Dick" takes us into two strange and unfamiliar worlds--that of the 19th-century whaler and its crew on a global hunt for whale oil on the high seas, and that of Captain Ahab's mind. A great adventure and a great obsession intertwined, inseparable.
The script was a brilliant adaptation of a difficult book. John Huston & Ray Bradbury put this together and managed to use a number of lines directly from the book in the sometimes odd vernacular of the period that gives certain scenes and dialogue such presence and authenticity.
From the odd first spoken line in the film, the voice-over of Richard Basehart saying "Call me Ishmael", the brilliantly constructed initial scenes that brought us, the audience, down to the sea as they brought the young Ishmael to it, the wonderful scenes in The Spouter's Inn where Ishmael meets innkeeper Peter Coffin and some of the Pequod's crew, notably Stubb, who goodnaturedly challenges Ishmael's seagoing ambition and, when convinced that he is authentic, introduces him to the inn's customs and celebration. And the unforgettable, wonderful and strange Queequeg with his head. Who wouldn't want to join a whaling voyage with this lot?! Peck's Ahab is one of the most compelling and memorable characters ever portrayed on film, and the transformation of the crew to carry out Ahab's obsessive search for the White Whale even against their better judgement was wonderfully portrayed and is the singular most important element of the story & of this script.
It is absurd to describe what happens in this film, and I will not. Suffice to say that this is a great film, one I can watch from time to time with almost the same frequency as 'Casablanca'.
When John Huston was casting for Moby Dick he got to make it on
condition that he get a name actor to play Ahab. He went to Gregory
Peck who was surprised by the offer. Given his image and the roles he
had played up to that time, Peck thought he'd be better cast as
Starbuck the first mate. Nevertheless he agreed to do Ahab.
Peck got mixed reviews at the time, but over the course of 50 years his performance has gotten better with time. The film itself which was shot in Ireland and Wales has also aged well. It's a nice depiction of life on a whaling ship in the 1840s and the crew of the Pequod are nicely cast in their roles.
Orson Welles was set to do his own adaption of Moby Dick and canceled his film when he heard his friend John Huston was doing Moby Dick. Welles asked about doing Ahab, but was given the small role of Father Mapple, the minister who blesses the Pequod's voyage. In fact Huston gave Welles a free hand to do the scene as he saw fit and the results are gratifying.
Of course Herman Melville's novel is about obsession and vengeance. I've always thought the point of Moby Dick is that the evil white whale who Ahab so personalizes and demonizes is just a whale doing his whale thing trying to stay alive. It is in fact the whalers who hunt him and his kind. And Ahab losing his leg is what we would call an occupational accident. The evil is how Ahab seduces the whole crew into his own madness, even first mate Starbuck, played winningly by Leo Genn who is the voice of reason and civilization.
Other cast members to note are Harry Andrews as second mate Stub, Friedrich Ledebuhr as Queequeg the Pacific Islander harpooner, and of course Richard Basehart as Ishmael who tells the tale.
This is a film that becomes part of you. I used to watch it over and over
again on TV when it was shown during my childhood in the 1960's, and I
tire of watching it. And whenever I find myself living somewhere away
the ocean, the longing is intense to find water again. "Call me
The screenplay was written by Ray Bradbury, and it was his first. In his lectures and interviews, Bradbury always seems to tell the story of how John Huston contacted him out of the blue for this assignment. Evidently, he flew Bradbury and his wife to Ireland, where the science fiction writer was holed up in a hotel for a few weeks, in a wonderful agony of creation.
Bradbury has always been enamoured with classic novels. His book "Fahrenheit 451" told us how great literature somehow becomes subversive, in a controlled society. Under fascism, individuals are not encouraged to understand what it is to be truly human. Life becomes flat, and it is a deliberate process.
Before I had a VCR, I taped this movie on an audio cassette. It was an amazing experience to see it unfold in my mind's eye.
Bradbury put his whole heart into this screenplay, and the result can never be matched.
This version of the Melville classic should, without question, be regarded as the penultimate screen adaptation of a masterwork of American fiction. Everything - absolutely everything - about this film works, from John Huston's brilliant direction, to the screenplay ( co-written by Ray Bradbury ), to the powerful and believable performances. Gregory Peck IS Ahab; if anyone defined and crystallized so megalomaniacal a character, it was Peck, hands down. Not that this should be interpreted as a slight to any of the supporting cast; it isn't. The casting is so good, in fact, that now we find it difficult, if not impossible, to view the supporting cast members in any other light, especially Frederich Ledebur: his choice by the producers as Queequeg was nothing if not dead on the money, as was the small but significant part of Elizah, as portrayed by Royal Dano. Granted, some liberties were taken with the book ( so what else is new? ), such as the squid being written out completely, but this was, and continues to be, necessary in order to make a movie that doesn't take five hours to play out. Yes, okay, it's a "Cliff's Notes" "Moby Dick", but if what you're after is good direction, outstanding ( one could say tour de force ) acting, and a tight screenplay, then this is the movie for you. Believe us, this is the one, NOT the remake with Patrick Stewart. Stewart's Ahab is basically Patrick Stewart playing Patrick Stewart playing Ahab or, to put it another way, Huston's "Moby Dick" needs to be remade about as badly as the rest of us need leukemia. 'Nuff said.
Ray Bradbury wrote an incredible screenplay for this work. Instead of trying to capture Herman Melville's actual brilliant leviathan sprawl (and who COULD succeed at this?)-- a novel jammed with fantastic,bigger than life characters, many events of great symbolic significance, not to mention barrels of whaling information-- he carves out the tale of Ahab and his obsession with the white whale. Bradbury makes great impact with Ahab's symbolic sacraments and rituals, showing a man who spits in the face of his own and his crew's doom, binding his men to his will with any means necessary. It's hard to believe, but Ray Bradbury takes this glorious wild child of a book and makes it work. The music by Phillip Sainton and the cinematography are great, too, but nothing would have saved this movie from a bad screenplay.
Very minor spoilers ahead.
John Huston did a fantastic job adapting Melville's masterpiece for film. Ray Bradbury did an excellent job adapting the dialogue and exposition from the novel for the film. he took giant and important chunks of essential dialogue, without needing to take up the extraneous scientific jargon or soliliqiues that are better suited for the printed page than the screen. He remains faithful to Melville's vision, and the important symbolism is there. It's a very difficult job, and Melville's novel is a very difficult book to adapt, but Bradbury, who apparently hadn't read the book before adapting it, did one hell of a job.
The actors are great, and it's a shame they didn't win any Oscars. Gregory Peck is excellent as the sullen, vengeance-driven Captain Aheab. He made the role his own, and knew when to be passionate and when to be calm and quiet. Some parts of the novel may seem wordy to viewers, but are important in conveying Melville's meaning, such as Father Mapple's sermon on man's obedience to God. If you have a short attention span, and only like action films that are short on substance, this movie is not for you. Everyone else must do themselves a favor and watch this classic. This is an adaptation for the ages.
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