Moby-Dick, arguably the most boring and tedious really good book one could read, makes for a deceptively tricky adaption. Sure, it’s a seafaring adventure story with violence, death, rage, and transparently dressed big themes, but other, almost anti-cinematic qualities are what make it an enduring novel. Ishmael’s wild narration—Melville’s radical and meandering literary experimentation—simply does not translate into the language of Hollywood cinema.
However, this month’s DVD release of Moby Dick by 20th Century Fox (part of the Literary Classics Collection) packs a heck of a movie in glorious 1956 Technicolor, born out of a strained collaboration between screenwriter Ray Bradbury and cowriter/director John Huston.
I never encountered the novel in an academic setting and was about four years out of college when I took it on. I know from conversations that I am not alone among fans of the book in admitting that I haven’t genuinely processed its every page. Several times, I found myself pages beyond where I was last involved in the text; my eyes went over each word without much participation from my brain. I’d heave a sigh and go back to the last place I was conscious, only to discover, oh yes, it was in the fifth of Melville’s 17 consecutive paragraphs about, say, varieties of masts, that my mind went numb. I’d skim forward, falling into the poetry of the writing, until I was once more drawn all the way in. Apologies to anybody who feels this makes me an unfit reviewer, but my confession is meant to emphasize a point: the plot is hardly the most significant element of the experience of reading this book.
Yet the plot, familiar to nearly every American, is plenty strong for Hollywood even without its literary dressing, and it lends itself to breathtaking visuals. Melville’s terrific imagery is honored here by Huston’s direction and Oswald Morris‘ cinematography. Most surprising are Huston’s closeups. He lingers long on the faces of elderly New Bedford townspeople as the Pequod sets sail, he savors reactions of the crew on the voyage, and he isn’t afraid to stick his camera anywhere he can imagine. The feeling of being at sea is conveyed not with wide, isolating shots of the ship afloat on a vast slate of blue-black, but by claustrophobic angles on the faces of sailors, the background rocking rhythmically and constantly, and by calloused feat racing up and down the ship’s planks.
The movie also stays close to its source material by seizing upon important but brief episodes from the book’s narrative. Ishmael’s fascination with the “boggy, soggy, squitchy picture” at the Spouter Inn makes the transition into the movie, and Huston and Bradbury take advantage of it, letting it lead into necessary exposition. The encounter with the prophet Elijah—unfortunately cast here too young and clean to be spooky—is included. Orson Welles, in one of his most forgettable roles, is still fine as Father Mapple in Melville’s sermon scene.
Like plot, the drive of a central protagonist is much more important in filmic narrative than in a novel. In the beginning of both the original text and the movie version, the obvious hero is Ishmael—the young, adventure-hungry man going a-whaling for the first time. However, as Ishmael (Richard Basehart in the movie) fades as a character and becomes a bolder and odder storytelling figure throughout the novel, the question of the film version’s main character naturally becomes murkier and murkier. Starbuck (Leo Genn) could take over were Huston and Bradbury interested in a complete bastardization of Melville’s work, but they preserve the first mate’s intelligence and effort to save the ship without resting the entire picture on his shoulders.
Costumed and bearded like a one-legged Abraham Lincoln, Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab steps into this void. It takes a couple scenes to get past Peck (and Honest Abe) and allow Ahab to be Ahab, but the actor’s initially restrained performance draws the viewer in as the character’s outrageous madness becomes more and more clear. The movie’s villain is also its hero, and while Starbuck is always right—it would be best to turn around and head to Nantucket, or to help out the crew of the Rachel— it’s hard not to cheer Ahab on as he pushes the ship closer to destruction.
As Melville’s novel may surprise some readers with its seemingly contemporary usage of a wide breadth of literary devices, Huston’s movie almost could have been made yesterday. Drawing from the book not only for story and theme, but also for dialogue when possible, the film holds up because it remembers it is a movie. The filmmakers forsake the unadaptable literary play that’s so much a part of the book and masterfully utilize the tools and language of cinema.
Although several scenes in the beginning are plagued by a dated and overbearing score, key moments later, such as when the audience and crew members alike are waiting for Ahab to speak or the whale to breach, play perfectly to eerie silence. The color of blood in the water is as striking here as it is in Jaws or any movie made since, and the movie benefits enormously from its having been shot largely off of a studio lot and on the ocean. The action sequences, especially the final one, are thrilling, the effects seamless.
The DVD is devoid of any production notes or interviews. Instead, it comes with a bookmark and contains the original theatrical trailer, which filmmaker Ernest Dickerson recently did a commentary on elsewhere.