Oh dear, Moby Dick. It’s one of those novels that a lot of people read because it’s supposed to be great and do NOT enjoy. One reason is that you’re basically expecting a literary Jaws, and are stunned, then frustrated, then angry, that Moby Dick doesn’t show up until page 750 of the 800-page novel. The rest of it is all meditation on the sea and the life if the seaman, and the business of whaling, which is all well and good the second time, when you’re expecting it, but not the first, in which you’re expecting hot whale-on-ship action. Ah well. The reason I got this movie is there was a piece on it in the New York Times, where the critic was saying what an impression it made on him as a child and how it verges on surrealism, so I was pretty keen to get it. I’d also never seen a film directed by John Huston, so this would be a good intro [oh, what am I thinking? Of course I’ve seen and loved The Maltese Falcon]. Oh and by the way, the screenplay is by Huston and Ray Bradbury!
We open with our hero saying “Call me Ishmael,” and giving the whole intro to the novel about being depressed and heading down to New Bedford, accompanied by a nice matte painting [oh, how I miss matte paintings] of the town below. He gets a room for the night, and that night meets Queequeg, played by an Austrian actor with some excellent-looking tattoos/scars. He doesn’t quite look like a south islander, but he does look and act convincingly exotic. Before you know it, they are fast friends and decide to ship together. He also catches a glimpse of Ahab, who appears to the sound of a thunderclap. The movie gets a lot of milage out of the “step-thump-step-thump” sound of his wooden leg.
The next morning, Orson Welles is on hand to give the old sermon from the book, which he handles quite capably, as you might imagine, but notice how the muted color gives the whole thing the look of a faded early American painting. There was a credit for Huston contributing “color styles” to the film… maybe this is what they meant? Ishmael and Queequeg sign to Ahab’s ship, then receive a dire warning by Royal Dano, character actor who has also graced such cinematic treasures as Messiah of Evil and the old Stacy Keach The Killer Inside Me. He delivers a prophetic warning about sailing with Ahab. Then before you know it, we’re into a somber sequence in which the women of the town come out to stand grimly in hoods and scarves to stare balefully at the departing seamen. It’s effective!
The ship leaves, and it’s a few days before the men actually see Ahab, but when Peck appears, he does look truly crazy. They’ve found a way to make it look like his eyes go in two directions, and he has a billion-mile stare that makes it seem that something is truly wrong. He tells the men that their main purpose is to find and kill Moby Dick, and gets the men riled up over it. This film successfully portrays the seamen as simple-minded folk in a way that comes off as realistic, not insulting. After they bring in one whale—accomplished with models that are surprisingly effective—second-in-command Starbuck is clear that he thinks Ahab is crazy to go after just one whale in the ocean. Ahab tells him that’s the deal, get used to it, and notice how Peck doesn’t blink for this entire scene.
SPOILERS > > >
We pass a certain point in the film in which things turn for the ominous. First, a man falls into the water and seemingly just disappears. Then Queequeg rolls the bones, and comes up with a very dire message. He orders a specially-made coffin from the carpenter, and settles down into a catatonic trance. Then—Moby Dick appears! I think this is somewhat earlier than in the novel, but it’s a necessary fix. There are nice touches in which things take a turn for the surreal, such as a shot of the men watching Moby Dick, nothing but blankness behind them. There is also a touch that a cloud of seagulls always hovers above Moby Dick, and thus around him the soundtrack becomes an eerie thrush of bird’s wings flapping.
After an unsuccessful attempt at Moby Dick, the wind dies away for days, leaving the men stranded, until they have to take the step of towing the ship with their rowboats. They soon encounter another ship damaged by Moby Dick, and the captain’s son dead in the battle, but Ahab refuses to help, pretty much dooming the other men, because he has to go pursue the white whale. He tells the captain “God help you,” and the captain replies “God forgive you, Ahab.”
Things go seriously south from here. Ahab offers his whole share to the man who kills Moby Dick, and urges the men to temper their harpoons in their own blood. The men fall for it, and Starbuck laments how “Madmen beget madmen.” Starbuck makes to shoot Ahab from behind, but can’t. He should have, because guess who shows up then? You got it, ol’ white head. The boats go out, Moby Dick smashes one, bites another in two, and soon enough Ahab has jumped onto Moby Dick with a harpoon, and become entangled in lines, his corpse strapped to the whale’s body. His arm moves in a way that seems to call to the men, who observe “Ahab’s dead, but he beckons.” Now Starbuck gets suddenly obsessed to get Moby Dick, in an effective twist. But before you know it Moby Dick has destroyed the whole lot, with special effects that are bad and yet somehow good, and the ship goes down in a whirlpool, leaving the final image of Queequeg’s floating coffin.
< < < SPOILERS END
It was quite good. This is a straight-up, quite solid adaptation that just gets the book up there on screen, without any special interpretation or artistic panache, just putting what is on the page on the screen, themes and subtexts intact. And there’s definitely something to be said for that. Sure, it leaves off all the pages of meditation on whaling and its symbolic weight, although it does retain hints of it with sections devoted to the bloody processing of the body and such. It’s probably as effective and faithful a version of the book that can be made.
Huston and Bradbury also retain the spirit of the novel with touches that allude to the vast cosmic resonance of the story, such as the sudden change of tone when the women appear at dockside or the otherworldly sound of the birds’ flapping wings when Moby Dick is present.
So yeah, a quite respectable adaptation that plays it straight and contains no frills, just an extremely solid and assured vision of what the novel is about, and a quite accomplished realization of that vision. Good, solid American craftsmanship.
If you want a good cinematic Cliff’s Notes version of the novel.