Tuesday, May 12, 2015

[Movie Review] Moby Dick (1956)

Moby Dick (1956)
Director: John Huston
Starring: Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn, Orson Welles
Screenplay: Ray Bradbury

For years I've been getting suggestions from authors whom I greatly respect and admire that Herman Melville's epic masterpiece Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a tale which is worthy of that nebulous and ill-defined distinction of being a "Great American Novel". I had never really given the book much thought, and never seriously considered reading it, until I realized that the recommendations were really starting to pile up: once I realized that this book had been recommended by no less than Nicholas Meyer, Mike Carey, even the astonishingly-talented Ray Bradbury, I decided I really had to see what all the fuss was about.

But I'm a man of limited means, so I thought I would rent the movie from my local library before committing to the novel. After all, that thing is HUGE! You might even say it's a whale of a tale.

"Haunting" is the best word that I can think of to describe this film. I think I finally understand why people keep reading the book, despite its forbidding size: the tale of Ahab and his mad, all-consuming quest for revenge has a way of gripping the mind. I keep finding myself thinking about this story and its characters, even several weeks after watching this film for the first time.

(Oh yeah, I guess there are spoilers ahead. Even though I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations on spoilers expired a long time ago.)

I'm sure you're all familiar with the basic outline of the story, even if you've never read it or seen the movie: Captain Ahab is maimed in an ill-fated encounter with an unusually large and intelligent white sperm-whale named Moby Dick, and spends the rest of his life (as well as his ship and the lives of his crew) in a Quixotic, suicidal quest to take his revenge against the monster who took his leg and scarred his face. Sure, there's all that stuff about Ishmael and Queequeg and Starbuck and all the rest, but make no mistake: Ahab is the real star here, even if it's the White Whale who gets the title.

Peck gives a commanding, sonorous performance as the crazed-but-brilliant Captain Ahab, master of the whaling ship Pequod. He's a bit more handsome than I expected Ahab to look, but Peck's Ahab is scarred more deeply inside than out. Ahab is not just a gibbering madman, though: he is an accomplished leader of men, an experienced sea-captain, and possessed of a brilliant analytical mind.

Orson Welles gives an unexpected cameo as Father Mapple, who delivers a sermon (on the subject of Jonah and the Whale, of course) which closes out the first act. Watching Welles transition smoothly from glowering intensity to thundering rage to pious tenderness is a fascinating study in emotional nuance from a master actor; do not skip this scene, however you might feel about listening to sermons.

As I watched, I was struck by the diversity of the Pequod's crew: in an era where segregation of the races was still enforced by law in many parts of the world, the crew of the Pequod includes Irishmen, Africans, New Englanders, Native Americans, African-Americans, and even a Polynesian Islander. The tasks assigned to various crewmen do not seem to hinge on race (though it's worth noting that the captain and all three of his mates are white), and race is not a barrier to promotion. After demonstrating his considerable skill with a harpoon, Queequeg is immediately recruited to the Pequod with a whopping sixtieth part of the voyage's profits (compared to Ishmael's measly three-hundredth).

Bradbury's screenplay is axiom-dense. It seems like every other line is some sort of pithy maxim that could easily spark hours of book-club conversations and classroom debates:
  • "Better a sober cannibal [for a bedfellow] than a drunken Christian." ~Ishmael
  • "Captain Ahab did not name himself. .Sign the paper now, and wrong him not because he happens to have a wicked name." ~Bildad
  • "Captains can't break the law. They is the law, as far as I'm concerned." ~Flask

Moby-Dick is actually a very philosophical film, despite the blue-collar setting. Lots of thought-provoking dialogue on the nature of Man, the sea and man's place upon it, what rights (if any) one man may hold over another), the extent of obedience and duty to one's captain, and whether it is moral to seek revenge against an unthinking animal. As First Mate Starbuck warns his captain, "To be enraged with a dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct... is blasphemous." There's a lot of deep thought here, and (at least initially) the viewer might even feel some sympathy with Ahab's desire for what he sees as justice, when he explains why he acts as he does:
Look ye, Starbuck... 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. It is the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate. The malignant thing that has plagued and frightened Man since time began. The thing that mauls and mutilates our race... not killing us outright, but letting us live on... with half a heart and half a lung.
But over the course of the film, we come to have less and less sympathy with Ahab, as it becomes clear just how many people he's willing to take down with him. Besides risking his own life and (remaining) limbs, he risks his ship, the Pequod, which he does not own; the financial well-being of all the New Bedford families who depend on this voyage's success for their sustenance; the lives of his crewmen, and the wages they bring home to their own families; and even (some might argue) his very soul.

In the course of his quest, Ahab encounters other captains who have had their own run-ins with Moby-Dick. Captain Boomer, who lost his hand to the whale (an even greater blow to a seaman than the loss of a leg!), makes jokes about his hook ("Better than flesh and blood! Like her so much, I've a mind to have me other arm cut off,") and professes that he is simply grateful to be alive after such a harrowing encounter. Ahab, of course, refuses to hear the wisdom of these words, and plunges on. The second captain, Gardiner, has suffered an even more terrible loss than either Ahab or Boomer, though not to his own body: his twelve-year-old son was killed by the whale, and the body was lost overboard. Gardiner begs Ahab to stay and help him search for his son's body, but Ahab, throwing Christian charity aside, and continues in his quest.

Sadly, unlike the acting, the script, and pretty much everything else about this movie, the whales of Moby Dick are merely "passable" at best. The first whale-chase was convincing enough that I, having never seen real whales up close, briefly wondered whether they might be real. But the illusion only remains convincing because all we see of the fleeing whales are their humps: as soon as I understood that that was all the prop-makers had built, and this was all of them we were going to see, it became a little harder to suspend my disbelief. When the White Whale himself breaches for the first time, it is instantly clear that he's a puppet, and not an especially convincing one. To be fair, this was 1956, and filmmakers were fairly limited by the technology of their day, but it was still something of an anticlimax that the main antagonist looked so fake.

Despite its technological shortcomings, Moby Dick is absolutely worth your time and attention. If you've ever wondered whether the book is any good, but been scared off by its tremendous size and "SERIOUS BUSINESS" reputation, then this film is the next best thing. Your knowledge of this tale will impress the hell out of your friends at parties, and Peck's crazed, throat-shredding screaming of Ahab's final lines - some of the best last words ever penned - is worth the price of admission alone.
"Ye damned whale! From hell's heart I stab at thee! For hate's sake... I spit my last breath at thee...thou damned whale!"