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Moby Dick

by Phil Hall
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 4, 2010
Moby Dick

When John Huston's film version of Herman Melville's Moby Dick opened in 1956, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther proclaimed it "one of the great motion pictures of our times." Yet, strangely, Moby Dick is usually not recalled today when film scholars look back on Huston's long and distinguished career. This is actually a major shame - while Crowther's bellowing may have been overly dramatic, Moby Dick is a hugely impressive work that gamely attempts the impossible in bringing cinematic life to Melville's sprawling and intellectually towering landmark novel.

The film has a great deal to recommend: Oswald Morris' distinctively subdued color cinematography, Philip Sainton's haunting score, a fidelity to Melville's dialogue via the screenplay by Huston and Ray Bradbury, a handsome production design that is remarkably faithful to the era of the whaling ships, and a stellar cast that included Orson Welles as Father Mapple, Richard Basehart as Ishmael and Leo Genn as Starbuck.

For many people, however, the quality of Moby Dick is anchored to Gregory Peck's Ahab. The performance has always created controversial discussion - Huston reportedly regretted the casting - and some critics felt Peck was out of his element as the obsessed whaling ship captain. Indeed, Peck's make-up and costume seemed to vaguely suggest Abraham Lincoln, which seemed to be at odds with his shipboard behavior.

But, quite frankly, Peck brings a wonderfully deranged quality to the role. Rather than play the man as a blatant lunatic, his vocal prowess and authoritarian demeanor convey the presence of Ahab as a stern, humorless 19th century leader whose intellect and body have been damaged by the legendary sea creature. Peck's Ahab is a serious man on a dangerous mission, and he captures the stark intensity of the character's fatal hunt with a steely determination.

And still, many purists remain displeased. A great deal of Melville's text had to be jettisoned to accommodate a feature film presentation - colorful characters such as the evil harpooner Fedallah and the well-intended Aunt Charity were dropped, while the blatantly obvious homoerotic elements of the story (particularly Ishmael's pleasure at sharing his bed with the hunky pagan Queequeg) was nowhere to be found. The complexity of the characters' motivations were telescoped, and the book's moments of genuine drama - especially the St. Elmo's fire sequence and the long-awaited appearance of the white whale - never quite reach generate the same gut-punch on the screen as they achieve on the page.

In fairness, though, this film version is closest to the source material - earlier film versions had the audacity to introduce a love story and a happy ending to their presentations!

Even if it is Melville-lite, Moby Dick is a rousing, beautifully conceived old-school production. Its return on DVD will, hopefully, bring it to a new generation of appreciative filmgoers while reminding the previously unimpressed that it is still available for serious reconsideration.

Phil Hall is the author of "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time

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