Sunday, September 27, 2009

Moby Dick, Ahab and I

From the first line -- "Call me Ishmael" -- to the last -- "I only am escaped, alone, to tell thee" -- Moby Dick haunted my imagination and my dreams.  Warner Brothers' 1956 production, directed by John Huston, with screenplay by Huston and Ray Bradbury, captures the soul of Herman Melville's 1851 novel about obsession and the demigod-complex that feeds it.  There are some differences between the movie and the book, but nothing that damages Melville's vision.  The poetically supernatural writing of Bradbury is evident in the screenplay and only adds to the power of the story.

Gregory Peck portrays Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, a surprising choice to many, including Peck himself.  John Huston's father, Walter, was the first choice to play Ahab, but died before the movie was made.  Peck was 40 years old at the time, younger than Melville's Ahab, but the marvelous makeup and costuming transformed the handsome, debonair Peck into the unforgiving, scarred Ahab.  Peck's acting reveals Ahab's scarred soul and rage against God and nature perfectly.  The cast includes a very young Richard Basehart as Ishmael, a wanderer who signs onto the Pequod with his south sea island friend, Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur).  The wonderful Leo Genn is the stalwart Starbuck, first mate, with Harry Andrews and Seamus Kelly as 2nd and 3rd mates Stubb and Flask.  Most famous of the supporting cast is Orson Welles, who appears a the unrelenting New Bedford minister, Father Mapple.  His cameo role preaching a thunderous sermon to the outgoing whalers is a powerful performance.

From the beginning, we see that even to his crewmen, Ahab is a god-like figure.  In answer to Ishmael's question about what Ahab is like, mate Stubb says simply "Ahab's Ahab", mirroring the Bible in which God describes himself to Moses -- "I am that I am."  Biblical references abound in Moby Dick.  The ragged man on the wharf who speaks to Ishmael as he goes to the ship calls himself Elijah, prophecying --

"A day will come at sea when you smell land where there be no land, and on that day Ahab will go to his grave, but he will rise again and beckon, and all save one shall follow."  This is one of Bradbury's contributions to the novel, in which Elijah only says something bad will happen.

Ahab's plan for this whaling voyage is not to hunt whales for their oil, but to hunt vengeance upon the white whale, Moby Dick, who took off his leg in an earlier encounter.  Ahab challenges the heavens in his quest, is obsessed with revenge and will take no refusal from anyone in his cause.  He wins the admiration and loyalty of the crew with his hypnotic speech and promises, convincing them with his own unrelenting leadership -- "You be the cogs that fit my wheel, the gunpowder that takes my torch."  Through storms and doldum, Ahab chases Moby Dick -- "I'll follow him around the Horn and around the Norway maelstrom and around perdition's flames before I give him up."

Starbuck is Ahab's conscience, endeavoring always to turn his captain away from his impious desire for vengeance, to no avail.  As Starbuck sees the men come under Ahab's spell, he is horrified -- "Where is the crew of the Pequod?  I see not one man I know among 30.  They are gloves, Ahab fills them, Ahab moves them. 

Moby Dick is so much more than a story of whaling in the early 1800's.  It is a portrait of obsession, vengeance, excitement and tragedy.  I have never forgotten the beautiful language, stirring music by Philip Sainton, and incredible ending of this great movie.

So go down to the sea, stand on the ship with Ahab and experience something very special. 


  1. Becky, it's Richard Basehart's performance that grounds the movie for me. He was an underrated performer (hmm...future idea there) and was adept at playing Everymen. By the way, there was an episode of the TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA--starring Basehart--called "The Ghost of Moby Dick," which was a contemporary retelling. So one could say that Richard acted in two different versions.

  2. Even though Gregory Peck looked like Lincoln. i thought he was wonderful as Ahab.

  3. Becky - the reactions section beneath each post only covers funny, interesting and cool. If there were a "brilliant" option that's what I would've checked for this post.

  4. becky,
    this review is one for the books, literally(no pun intended). i can see you sitting in a chair across from roger ebert talking about this film in glowing terms. if the movie is as mesmerizing as your review, it must be an exceptional movie indeed. make sure you include this review in any book of your reviews that you may publish in the future. veejay

  5. Becky, I think that you did a wonderful job of capturing the eerie, mystical allure of Melville's creation. I have not seen the movie for many, many years, so my dim recollections of it don't do justice to the detailed nuances of your review. I am going to watch it again (Netflix, here I come) and will comment further after my dim memories are refreshed.