Gregory Peck initially blamed the poor reviews for his performance on the script, which he felt contained "too much prose from the novel". However, he later acknowledged that he had been too young for the part at 38, since Captain Ahab was supposed to be an old man at the end of his career (Ahab's age, as implied in the book's chapter "The Symphony", is 58). He added, "The film required more. At the time, I didn't have more in me."
John Huston shopped the film around Hollywood for three years before United Artists and Moulin Productions agreed to produce it. It was a dark, depressing story, without any female parts or love interest, so Hollywood shunned the screenplay. Warners only entered the agreement for theatrical distribution on the condition that a big-name actor take the role of Ahab. Many thought Gregory Peck was miscast, and Peck actually thought that Huston himself would have been the best choice for the role.
When Starbuck enters the captain's cabin and tells Ahab that he should get some sleep, Ahab replies that his berth is a coffin. This was quite literally the truth. Officers would sleep in a box. If he died on the voyage, his bunk became his coffin. Similarly, the non-officers slept in hammocks. Those hammocks would become their burial shrouds if the died during the cruise.
Gregory Peck was later told by a Warner Brothers insider that John Huston had "conned" him into playing Captain Ahab. Huston had originally approached Peck telling him, "Nobody could do this part except you." Peck was so flattered by the director's confidence in him that he accepted a role he felt he was ill-suited for. Peck subsequently learned that Huston had never really wanted him to play Ahab at all, but was forced to by Warner Brothers executives, the Mirisch brothers, who told Huston they would not finance his dream project without a "bankable" star.
In a 1967 "Films in Review" interview, Gregory Peck voiced his dissatisfaction with John Huston's direction in this film. "I remember one scene on which all [Huston] said was 'Feel the camera on your face,' which merely confused me. And in an important scene in which I had a long speech beginning 'If there is a God, there must be a malevolent God,' I was told, 'Kid, if you ever deliver the goods this has to be the time.' Is that direction?"
To create the desaturated pastel effect image of the movie, director of photography Oswald Morris used a unique dye transfer technique that uses broad-cut black and white matrices. This causes the separation, and contains the other two colors before recombining to create the desired effect. A silver layer was later added in the 4th pass.
The whale "Moby Dick" was an 85-foot-long, steel-reinforced, rubberized construction. Two full models were made, costing approximately $30,000 each, both were lost at sea during shooting, necessitating a third to be built for the sequences shot in the Canary Islands. At one point, the towline of the third whale broke during filming and sailed into a fog with Gregory Peck on its back.
Gregory Peck, who did not use a double, injured his kneecap, Richard Basehart broke his ankle while jumping into a longboat and Leo Genn, slipped a disk and caught pneumonia before shooting had finished.
Captain Ahab forecasts the whereabouts of Moby Dick at Bikini Atoll, which he points out on a chart. This place is not mentioned in the book by Herman Melville. Many viewers in 1956 made the connection between the location of the atom bomb testing site and the theme of the film.
Gregory Peck's few attempts to play a villain were considered unsuccessful, perhaps because the public could not accept Peck as anything other than good. He was considered too young at 38 to play Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1956), especially since the character was described in Herman Melville's novel as an old man.
Walter Mirisch recalls that John Huston insisted on filming aboard an actual ship at sea. Stormy conditions caused the cast and crew to become sick, delaying production and running over budget at 4.5 million dollars. The film to this day has not repaid what it cost to produce.
When John Huston first met Ray Bradbury to discuss writing the screenplay, Bradbury admitted, "I've never been able to read the damned thing." Huston simply asked Bradbury to come back the next day to start working and, handing him a copy of the book, said, "Just go home and read what you can."
One of the myths circulating about this film is that it was "filmed on location". While there is plenty of location work on it (Canary Islands, Irish Seas, Youghal, Ireland), over 2/3 the film was shot at Shepperton and Elstree Studios in England. These include the Spouter's Inn tavern scenes, Father Mapple's sermon, Ahab's first speech on the deck of the Pequod (note the painted sky background), the typhoon; Ahab's dialog on the whale's back. While there are a few shots of the sixty foot Moby Dick on the open sea, most of the whale appearing in the finished film are various sized miniatures and selected body parts (jaws, body cylinders, eyes) which were co-ordinated by art director Stephen B. Grimes.
The ship captained by Captain Boomer (James Robertson Justice) is the 'Samuel Enderby'. Samuel Enderby founded a whaling company called Samuel Enderby & Sons. Vessels of the Enderby company vessels sailed seas all around the world, including whaling trips and being part of the Third Fleet to the colony of New South Wales.
Over the years, John Huston and Gregory Peck, among others, have talked about how during filming on the Irish Sea, the company lost one - some say as many as three - rubber white whales; the assumption being that the special effects people built complete 60-foot leviathans from head to fin. However, cinematographer Oswald Morris, in his autobiography, "Huston, We Have a Problem," said that no full-length model whale was ever built. He claims the film company trolled the sea on the Pequod with a props barge nearby. The barge carried various parts of the whale's body (tailfins, hump, etc.), which were used as needed. The only complete whale bodies were different-sized miniatures that were filmed in a special tank designed by special-effects whiz Augie Lohman at Shepperton Studios. Likewise, all the shots of the whale's head were filmed indoors (as they couldn't make the jaws, eyes and other components work on the open sea). According to Morris, the "lost" whale was a 20-foot-high cylinder of the middle section which broke away from its tow line and floated away (he doesn't say if Peck was on board when the prop was lost), but he implies that it was the only whale "casualty" in the entire production.
Part of the movie was filmed in Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. Almost 60 years later, part of Ron Howard's "In the Heart of the Sea" would be filmed in the Canaries. Howard's movie tells the story of the Essex ship. Herman Melville used the story of the Essex as the basis for his novel Moby Dick.