Moby Dick (1956)

Moby Dick (1956), produced and directed by John Huston.

How the wheel turns: whaling was an important world-wide industry in the 19th century, now a despised trade that threatens endangered species. Who doesn't love whales?

The narrator of the book had ambivalent feelings even at the time: it was exciting to see the world and engage in the hunt, but sad to slaughter the noble beasts. Ishmael's heaven was to sail into a pod of whales and watch the infants nursing in the clear water below. His hell was the nighttime glow of the fires boiling down blubber from a kill while legions of frenzied sharks savage the carcass tied to the ship.

Whaling was dangerous as hell, approaching suicidal. Men rowing longboats would cast harpoons into the whales and be dragged along by ropes until the creature died or turned around and smashed them. Riding sandworms on the planet Arrakis would be a rough equivalent.

In this film the early whaling scenes are pretty well done. The White Whale itself is not as satisfying. I believe their largest mockup was damaged or lost and they had to make do with smaller models. In the book Moby Dick inspires mystical awe in the crew; not much of that here.

Gregory Peck's Ahab looks like an insane Lincoln. He felt he was unsuited to the part and blamed Huston for getting him into it, but the director always defended his performance.

As our narrator, Richard Basehart is a bit more timid than I imagine Ishmael to be. This was his first (and last?) whaling voyage, but he was an experienced seaman.

I recall some objections to Polynesian harpooner Queequeg being played by an Austrian aristocrat, but I think it works. Queequeg was a nobleman on his own island and the accent helps. The actor is Friedrich von Ledebur, last seen in Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and Sorcerer (1977).

Orson Welles has one scene delivering a sermon -- on Jonah, of course -- at the seamans chapel. He required a little alcoholic fortitude before he could perform. I'm sure Huston understood.

The book has the reputation of being weighty and difficult, but I think it goes like a house on fire. The chapters are often topical and if you don't care for certain cetology details you can skip them.


Photographed by Oswald Morris, who shares an additional credit with Huston: "color style creator". They definitely wanted a desaturated antique look.

Written by Ray Bradbury and the director, who did not get on at all.

Available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, but now out of print. The source is an old master, barely DVD quality in some scenes. They do not claim a proper restoration but say the color was adjusted to match Oswald Morris's original intent.

Appreciative commentary track by Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman, and Paul Seydor.