Moby Dick – An Unsung Great

Described as a “noble failure”, 1956’s Moby Dick was the long-gestated passion project of one of classic Hollywood’s greatest directors; John Huston. Adapting what is arguably the great American novel (its 427 pages and 135 chapters) to the screen was always going to be a colossal endeavor, but going overbudget in the course of a three-year shoot and dipping tonally into the remote and uncommercial, the returns on Huston’s Moby Dick barely inched past its production budget. If this movie can conceivably be considered a failure, the blame lands squarely on its ambition, that most sorely lacking quality in today’s film world. In the opinion of this piece, it’s no failure, by any stretch, but it does have failings.

Among them, depending on who you ask, is the casting of Gregory Peck in the all-important role of Ahab. Barely 38 at the time of filming, and too charming even beneath his severe performance, Peck is ill-suited to fill the ivory peg leg of a beaten, darkly consumed ship captain in the twilight of his whaling days. The character of Ahab demands that an actor appear to be peeling with weariness, clinging to life only by hate and the hardened resolve of a man who’s seen too many nights at sea. Apart from the svelte and spirited star cloaked behind it, the look of Ahab is nevertheless spectacular. The filmmakers weather Peck’s face with scarring; as if a lightning bolt had rolled up and out of his eye, torn a welt across his face and streaked white through his overgrown beard.

Early on a brief appearance by Orson Welles, delivering a sermon he himself wrote for his role as Father Mapple, conjures thoughts of what might have been were he and the star to trade roles. Unfortunately, Welles took on the brief appearance for a paycheck alone (needing cash to help fund, curiously enough, his own stage production of Moby Dick). Houston had initially envisioned his Academy Award-nominated father in the Ahab role, but financing could only be secured after Walter Huston’s passing, and so Peck was chosen to satisfy a studio mandate (producers demanded that a “name” actor be attached in a starring role to make the picture more marketable, a move which, predictably, failed). Peck blamed the initial poor reception of his performance on a lot of things over the years and in time grew so unfond of it that he would refuse its licensing to Steven Spielberg for use in Jaws. Ultimately, Peck did what he could in a role he himself felt he was unsuited for, turning in a convincingly maddened and grim performance. The actor once remarked that his preferred iteration of Moby Dick was the 1998 mini-series (in which he appears as Mapple) because it had a greater “sense of adventure” (not sure which novel he read).

In reading Moby Dick, many find that madness, desperation, misfortune, and the fear of God cloud the Pequod-like foxing mist, a quality to which the film is fairly faithful (though Huston’s Ishmael seems a great deal more chipper than the man in possession of a ‘damp, drizzly November’ in his soul whose recollections make up the book). This fidelity is doubly impressive once you learn that screenwriter Ray Bradbury (yes, that Ray Bradbury) admitted to having “never been able to read the damned thing” shortly before commencing on a first draft. Bradbury makes a contribution of his own where appropriate, for instance: the presumed whereabouts of Moby Dick aren’t specified in the novel, but here Bradbury signals out the bikini atoll; the testing ground for the atom bomb, a suitable rejuvenation if ever there was one.

Then again, how faithful can any film remain to a novel so dense, unknowable, multifaceted and concerned with chowder. Remember that, along with procedural explorations of whaling minutia and brief play-script-facsimiles, a full chapter of the novel is devoted to… chowder. And not one sandwiched deep within its many pages, confident enough in having won your interest already to justify such a diversion, no, no, no, it’s the second chapter. Huston boils away the fat of Melville’s claustrophobic epic by reducing the scope of its focus to the delirium of the Pequod’s voyage, before setting the remaining slick alight in a tremendous climax. The pursuit of the whale, and the decimation he wreaks in response, have a power to sweep you away entirely and are unsurprisingly the sequences for which the film is best remembered.

To capture the straining mass of the leviathan as it pulls whaleboats in its wake, the production constructed three 75ft artificial whales, each made in sections for individual shots (and of which, all three were lost at sea). The effects impress elsewhere, as in the extraordinarily tactile typhoon sequence. Scenes like this have an ambition to conquer the senses with environments which totally swallow the human concerns playing out within, in the manner that David Lean would go on to accomplish years later in films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. When crew members clamber to the masthead, pounded with waves on either side and rain from above, once you recall that this is, in fact, a set, the thought appears: never mind the camera- how did the cameraman not drown? The settings are never less than convincing, even if some of the miniature work in the final confrontation hasn’t held up perfectly. Even amongst all this grandeur, accompanied by an extravagant score by one-time film composer Philip Sainton, the more subdued sound mix is a real standout (very unusual for a film of this time). The ship is often kept in dispiriting silence; scurrying, shifting, creaking and the like carry over the still waters and through the long-seasoned timber, but most of all, the nightly thumps of Ahab’s peg-legged pacing.

moby dick unsung great

Part of this unique ability to skirt the studio look-and-feel of most 1950s technicolor productions comes down to the pallet of the film; a distinctive dark and cold drainage that saps the screen of life. The film was treated with a black and white print atop the standard three Technicolor images during processing, with a mind to resemble old whaling prints, the sort where whales leap forcefully from an ocean, deep and green with tumult. The result, paired with Huston’s bravura direction, is a film that thunders on the screen.

All the same, another grievance: some critics malign the loss of a certain mysticism. Far more practically, it should be said that Moby Dick plays too little a role until the final act of the film. The shroud the whale casts over proceedings throughout the book is largely left behind in favor of shifting focus onto Ahab’s menacing authority over his crew, and lack of authority over his temperament. It would seem that the whale should be more imposing, even if we are kept in prolonged suspense before its appearance; all talk and fearful fixation realized in a white mountain turned pale by the ages and set to sea. In Jaws, the shark has a presence in every scene even as we don’t see it. It occupies the mind as Moby Dick occupies the mind of Ahab. That ghostly presence is all-important, especially for a film which equates Moby Dick with a false God, not honored but reviled, worshipped through a single-minded hunt at the cost of all Godliness.

Ahab puts it so: “All visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. ‘Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung.” I don’t know that Moby Dick makes such an impression throughout the film. But what an impression it leaves nonetheless.