1950s, Blogathon, Drama, Epic

Moby Dick (1956)



Director/Coscreenwriter: John Huston

By Roderick Heath

This is an entry in The John Huston Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies.

Whenever the subject of profoundly underrated movies comes up, John Huston’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s legendary novel is one I think of immediately. Melville’s colossal work, with its multifaceted symbols and thickets of Victorian prose, is impossible to condense entirely as a film, and yet Huston managed the ungodly job of reducing that tome to two vigorous, sensual, incantatory hours of cinema. If lead actor Gregory Peck’s performance as Captain Ahab was a bit less studied, it would rank amongst Huston’s best works. Stylistically, it explored new territory in attempting to fuse the traditional effects of classic Hollywood filmmaking with a fresh hue of realism and metaphysical grandeur. Huston sat himself at the crossroads between cinema and literature, and in his greatest works, negotiated a rare alchemy. His simultaneous respect for the source text and the expressiveness of his camera are in fine balance throughout most of Moby Dick, and it’s a film that seems both authentically historical and ahead of its time.


Huston wrote the script with Ray Bradbury—now there’s an unexpected partnership for you—and maintained his practise of sticking as close to the letter of a text as possible, which, in the case of Melville’s work, demands adjustment to the sonorous musicality and archaism of the dialogue. It is, of course, adaptation, and yet Huston’s fascination for characters whose private madness manifests as obsessive, self-destructive, but officially aspirational quest, the most consistent of his themes in the first part of his long and ragged career, is immediately personal. He had travelled from the modest symbol of the Maltese Falcon through to the gold dust of the Sierra Madre, the revolution of We Were Strangers (1949), the heist of The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the art of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952), and later, the psychoanalysis of Freud (1962) and the preaching of Wise Blood (1979). The object of this quest evolved from mere corrosive greed to something deeper, an unquenchable need to control the world through some lens, in his protagonists. Like Lautrec and Treasure’s Fred C. Dobbs, Captain Ahab’s a man degraded in worldly condition who nonetheless tries to prove himself equal to gods in his own way.


Moby Dick came at a fraught time for Huston, who was entering the middle and still rather underregarded phase of his directing career, which extended more or less to 1972’s Fat City. Huston’s epochal run of collaborations with Humphrey Bogart had recently ended with the square flop of his leisurely, self-satirising comedy-thriller Beat the Devil (1954), which lost Bogart a lot of money. If the years to come saw Huston’s oeuvre lose the shape associated with many great directors, his efforts to expand the lexicon of mainstream cinema’s expressive techniques whilst maintaining reverence for good writing didn’t go anywhere. When Ishmael (Richard Basehart) issues his famous introduction, Huston kicks off a subtly rapturous piece of filmmaking that accompanies his meditations on the mystic gravity of water: Ishmael appears in the frame silhouetted against the sky, and then proceeds downhill, following the paths of cataracts and streams until they lead him to the sea and New Bedford itself.


When he arrives there, the patrons of the Spouter Inn, including genial innkeeper Peter Coffin (Joseph Tomelty) and fiercely friendly sailor Stubbs (Harry Andrews), induct Ishmael into the peculiar fellowship of whalers, and then glimpse the ivory-legged Ahab in a flash of lightning, limping by the inn. Huston builds up the presence of Ahab as a being of fear and force with tremendous skill, even though he doesn’t make a proper appearance until more than a half-hour into the film, through the relentless drum of his false leg on the deck of the Pequod and the reactions of other men to his twisted, foreboding form: “His looks tell more than any church sermon about the mortality of man,” Quaker agent Peleg (Mervyn Johns) advises Ishmael. When he finally does appear, he’s a gross fusion of the natural and unnatural, stalwart Yankee and shaman, fused with the bone of the whales he decimates and idolises in the most perverse of fashions.


Whilst remaining keenly faithful to the book Huston stages Moby Dick as a succession of lengthy and intricate sequences, so that structurally his film is less novelistic than symphonic (the importance of Philip Sainton’s flavourful, frenzied score, amazingly enough his only work for the movies, is inestimable). After Ishmael’s arrival, he attends the sermon of Father Mapple (Orson Welles, in a splendidly judged piece of arch character acting), where Huston’s camera drifts up the centre aisle, passing by the singing congregants engaged in social ritual and religious contract, whilst the wall, sporting the memorial markers for the dozens of men lost at sea engaged in New Bedford’s business, tells its own version of the story of whaling. It’s a shot that welds the communal and the private, the historic, the physical and metaphysical, the emotional and the ironic all together. Mapple himself, preaching his ferocious version of the tale of Jonah and the whale (what sermon does he give every other week?), presents the first visual and thematic correlation between mystic and master, in climbing onto his pulpit fashioned like a ship’s prow. In much the same way, and with an equally fervent but more equivocal, bizarre fashion, Ahab preaches the sermon of the white whale and the necessity of destroying it to his bewitched crew, to annihilate “what mauls and mutilates our race.” Whilst Queequeg (Friedrich Ledebur) is defined as a heathen—in response to the pointed questions of Peleg’s fellow Quaker Bildad (Philip Stainton), he replies by hurling his harpoon with such deadly accuracy all objections are ceased—he and the other non-Caucasian men who form the ship’s trinity of harpooners are the first to recognise Ahab’s cabalistic god.


The first great sequence is the Pequod’s sailing day, a thrumming piece of cinema with precisely outlaid vignettes, from a congregant (Iris Tree) handing out bibles to the crewmen being ignored decisively by Queequeg; the silent chorus of widows and wives watching their menfolk prepare to disappear for three years; first mate Starbuck (Leo Genn) waving farewell to his wife (Joan Plowright) and children who keep a more distant vigil; Ishmael and Queequeg’s encounter with the ranting seer Elijah (Royal Dano); cabinboy Pip (Tamba Allenby) dancing and beating his tambourine under a flowing Stars and Stripes; the crew raising sails and leaving port whilst singing authentic shanties (taught to the cast by A. L. Bert Lloyd, who leads them on screen); and the final shout of “Around the world!” by the helmsman that echoes about the bay as the ship sails out of the harbour. This is one of the great scenes in cinema, in how it not only offers up precise, heartfelt, rousing detail, but also describes an entire organic world with such depth that it seems torn out of racial memor; the helmsman’s cry resounds with such a sense of space and solitude that the awe of communing with the ocean that the men are embarking upon is in itself a spiritual challenge. This also reveals what Huston had learnt from Don Siegel, who had cut together an embryonic version of the scene for Huston’s 1942 programmer Across the Pacific.


“Captains can’t break the law!” shouts Flask (Seamus Kelly), the Pequod’s hot-headed third mate in riposte to Starbuck’s suggestion that they can topple Ahab from his post: “They is the law, as far as I’m concerned!” But Starbuck, whose “courage was one of the great staples of the ship…there when required, and not to be foolishly wasted,” objects to Ahab’s deification and his quarrel in turn with the “thing behind the mask” that animates the forces of the world and Moby Dick in particular. He suspects Ahab means to tear down god in killing Moby Dick and determines to stop him, and yet Starbuck’s own objectifying Protestantism is blind to the force of nature itself: “Moby Dick’s no monster, he’s a whale! We don’t run from whales, we kill ‘em!” he barks at the Pequod’s crew, thus committing them to the same suicidal mission for which Ahab has already perished. Genn’s terrific performance is worth noting for the way he balances calm with a curious, deeper ardour, particularly in the scene where his nerve fails him and he can’t shoot a suddenly reflective Ahab. Huston’s most cunningly added flourish is to situate Ahab’s anticipated meeting with Moby Dick, plotted from a chart he’s compiled that allows him to follow the movements of whales, at Bikini Atoll, then infamous for being the location of American H-bomb tests: Ahab’s date with the white whale is humankind’s date with annihilation.


Huston’s efforts to infuse the industrialised cinema that had given him his break with a deeper, more fluent realism of look and feel had led him to shoot deep in Mexico and Africa, and for Moby Dick, it led him back to Ireland, where he would live off and on for the rest of his life. To stand in for the old Yankee whaling town of New Bedford, he utilised the historic town of Youghal, and he worked with his director of photography, Oswald Morris, to find a way of diffusing the hitherto overbright and cheery Technicolor so that the film would take on a more incisive, subtle palette. Huston had already experimented with colour effects in Moulin Rouge, and whatever the dramatic weaknesses of that film, it was a successful experiment in mise-en-scène. The look of Moby Dick, with its detailed, yet muted colour, possesses a quality that looks more modern than many ’50s films and yet also captures the look of period daguerreotypes and lithographs. The model work in the whaling scenes is inevitably dated, and Huston edited those scenes furiously to maintain the impression of terrific physicality and interspersed real footage of traditional whaling in the Azores.


One great pleasure of the film is the remarkable depth of actors who dot the landscape, sometimes in the smallest of roles, like Bernard Miles as a Manxman crewman, and Francis de Wolff as the captain of fellow whaling ship the Rachel, glimpsed only in distant long shots and yet still affecting in pleading with Ahab to aid him in searching for his missing son. Basehart was a bit too ripe to be playing Ishmael—at 40, he was two years older than Peck—but it’s certain Huston cast him for his open, yet weathered looks and rich baritone, which makes for a stirring voiceover. The whole cast, even German actor Ledebur as Queequeg, seem chosen with such care they almost seem born for their roles.


It’s an irony then that the most commonly cited weakness of the film is Peck’s performance, which, though by no means bad, is not quite right either. Peck was and is associated with onscreen humanity and decency, and lacks the innate sense of wildness and unswerving authority necessary for Ahab. Peck is more acutely stylised in his performance, straining his mid-century naturalism to approximate the outlandish “supreme lord and dictator.” Huston had originally wanted his own father Walter to play the part when he first came up with the project, and Welles had wanted to make a version himself; both Welles and John Huston himself, as Peck later said, would have made more ideal Ahabs. Nonetheless, Peck, with his lanky uprightness and air of physical force struggling to accustom itself to the weight of his false leg and the scar that has cleft his face, embodies Ahab as the Yankee golden boy regressed into primitivist spell-casting. His eyes flash in threat and ardour as he explains his motives, his voice swings from low menace to bellowing fury, whipping his men into bloodlust. He eyes Ishmael with strange intent when pronouncing “body” in addressing Ishmael (to Ishmael’s quivering fixation), as if detecting the strange charge between him and “same body” friend Queequeg and appealing to flesh and soul in turning his crew into a cult to hunt down the whale.


In the second extraordinary sequence, the Pequod, stuck becalmed at Bikini, becomes the scene of devolution, as Queequeg, convinced by his soothsaying bones that he’s going to die, sits immobile after paying the carpenter to build him a coffin, and the crew, sweltering in a tropical evening, the moon as hot as a sun, begins to fray. The chipping of the carpenter’s labours and Pip commencing an eerie song and dance provide a strange rhythmic music for the action as Ishmael appeals to his friend to come around, and a bored crew member, testing Queequeg’s resolve, slices long bloody lines in his chest. Huston’s editing here, and the use of sound, is brilliant in creating a stygian mood, and builds to a remarkable, silent tussle as Ishmael tries to save his friend from mutilation, only to be set upon and threatened with murder himself before Queequeg comes around to save him, and the cry of “Thar she blows!” finally breaks the spell. Moby Dick appears like “a great white god,” as Pip describes him, jumping clean over the longboats hunting him, and the Pequod gives chase, ploughing through a storm at Ahab’s behest—he even threatens Starbuck with a lance when he tries to cut rigging. Ahab play-acts a masterstroke of theatre when St. Elmo’s Fire illuminates the ship, taking the last step towards shamanism in snatching fire from the sky and “put(ting) out the last fear.”


All that’s left is for the final, consuming battle with Moby Dick, in which Ahab finishes up straddling his nemesis’s back and stabbing him with fury whilst screaming his curses, before drowning and beckoning in death to his crew. The whale furiously bashes the hull of the Pequod in and crushes the puny humans who taunt him with animalistic rage before succumbing to Ahab’s harpoon wounds. It’s the most ambitious scene of action Huston ever attempted, and it’s brilliantly staged, even if the special effects now look ropy. In compensation, Huston’s cutting manages to be both coherent and yet full of sound and fury, signifying quite a lot indeed, as the great whale’s teeth rake the waters and his tail smashes down on the helpless men, leaving Ishmael to drift clinging to Queequeg’s coffin until rescue by the Rachel, the sole escapee from this annihilating hour. It’s a deeply affecting end to a film ripe for reevaluation, and Huston himself, a man who constantly tried and often failed to keep one foot in a world of macho excess and another in artistic sensitivity, pushed both impulses to a limit in Moby Dick.


20 thoughts on “Moby Dick (1956)

  1. Glad to find another fan. I’d rank it as my favorite Huston after Sierra Madre and Maltese Falcon. I can only second most of what you say, while adding that Peck looks perfect for the role, but perhaps should have played it more tersely. I recently saw him play a grim avenger in Henry King’s The Bravados, and he’s at his most menacing when he’s the most curt. Giving him so much Melvillian dialogue makes him sound a little too theatrical and inauthentic at times, but I still like the performance. Genn is as great as you say, and the ensemble is good all around. Let’s see how many agree with us.


  2. Well Samuel, count me in! Ha! Another extraordinary Roderick Heath review in defense of a sadly neglected Huston work, though I am inclined to have THE DEAD and FAT CITY ahead of it. Rod’s review coincides with Adam Zanzie’s John Huston blogathon, which launches tomorrow at Icebox Movies.

    I was riveted here to the crack descriptions of the most accomplished sequences, and on the point of Gregory Peck I agree he is absolutely the weakest link.

    I would imagine much of the resistence to the film is that it is based on what is generally accepted as the greatest novel in all of American literature. (a position I wouldn’t argue even with a few from Hawthorne, Twain and James on the table) No film version could ever do justive to Melville’s maddening diversions, but this attempt is laudable in many ways.


  3. I’m also a fan of the film, though this review prompts me to watch it again. These vividly described scenes have faded, so it must have been a long time since I last watched it. As for The Dead, you’ll find another superb Rod Heath review of that perfect film at This Island Rod. In fact, if I ever teach my Irish History in Cinema class, The Dead is on the list.


  4. Rod says:

    Sam W: Peck is undoubtedly at his best in The Bravados, a part which allows him to play relentless without having to be stylised, because he was not an actor who, like Welles, could lend himself to less naturalistic fare. He’s still very good, though; it’s not like they cast Tab Hunter or anything. As I’ve tried to get at in the review, I like Peck phyiscally in the role, with his strength sapped by age and still more by injury but still strong enough and angry enough to take the world on. Other actors might have made Ahab a more standard type of showy tyrant. The Melvillian dialogue has never bothered me, perhaps because automatically attune myself for this sort of thing and especially because of the milieu it’s set in.

    Sam J: I love The Dead to bits and Fat City too (although I really do need to see that again), and writing this I was thinking about the utilisation of voiceover here and in The Dead‘s finale and thinking how successfully Huston dovetails his own themes and those of writers as different as Melville and Joyce in painting landscape with spiritual undertones. I think possibly one reason this film has remained neglected is because a lot of not very good films of classic literature, both American and foreign, came out in the ’50s (eg Faulkner turned into Petticoat Junction for The Long Hot Summer and The Sound and the Fury or Dostoevsky and Norman Mailer festooned with smarmy endings in The Brothers Karamazov and The Naked and the Dead), and a lot of these started to run into each other. But revisiting it this time, the degree to which Huston captured the craziness at the heart of the book is truly striking. One thing in its favour is that the novel is at least inherently cinematic – figures like Ahab and Queequeg and Moby Dick himself are made to romp about on screen in oversized detail.

    Mare: You should bloodywell get to teach that, too.


  5. Someday, maybe when I’m older, I’m going to try to read Melville’s novel. Has anybody here gotten through the whole thing? I read some passages from it in high school, and I remember the prose being so impossibly daunting. “Moby Dick” is one of those novels like “Tristam Shandy” and “Ulysses” that is famous for being extremely difficult to finish, though I guess it’s probably easier to read than those other two, given the constant film adaptations and the purely exciting premise itself.

    I watched Moby Dick again recently, after only having seen it on television many years ago, and getting to see the film in its entirety on DVD is a big thrill. I simply don’t agree with the criticisms that Gregory Peck was miscast in the movie. Whenever I think of Ahab, I think of Peck. Apparently the John Barrymore version from the 1930’s (unseen by me) makes Ahab out to be more of a ham, but as Huston writes in his autobiography, “that wasn’t Melville”. Ahab is supposed to be deranged and mad, with maybe a little bit of a kind heart extended towards Starbuck, but few others. I can’t imagine anyone other than Peck reciting that “sky” speech in the scene where Leo Genn’s Starbuck comes very close to gunning him down.

    Anyone here heard that story of how Peck and Huston had a falling out after the film? Huston never understood why and thought it was because of a stupid little incident in which he kissed Peck’s wife Veronica on the cheek and somehow made Peck jealous; but Peck later revealed (after Huston’s death) that he was angry mainly because Huston had made him believe that he could successfully play Ahab–but the critics at the time had other opinions. I guess this also explains why Peck never allowed Spielberg to use footage from the movie in Jaws (in a scene where Quint was supposed to be laughing at that giant plastic whale rising out of the ocean), because Peck was too embarrassed with the movie. About the whale itself: Huston claims in his book that they lost one of the whales and that it just drifted on through the ocean until it finally bumped into a Dutch dike. Ha!

    Of special note, watching the movie again I was able to actually notice Harry Andrews for the first time, since I had seen him recently in Sidney Lumet’s The Hill. Also, I didn’t even recognize Joan Plowright as Starbuck’s wife!

    I don’t know if I would say that Moby Dick is a great film, though I do like it a lot. I think I ought to familiarize myself with the novel more before I make up my mind on the movie, mostly because, with this being a 2-hour film of a 500-800 (?) page book, I don’t feel like I’ve been completely exposed to the whole “Moby Dick” story quite yet. But I admire your willing to suggest that this comes close to being Huston’s greatest film, Rod; my views on Huston’s work aren’t quite as radical, but that’s what makes discussion on his films so exciting. Thanks for writing up on this movie for the blogathon–I was truly hoping somebody would.


  6. Rod says:

    Adam, Moby Dick‘s an inherited love for me; my father had always spoken highly of it, and since encountering it myself I’ve had nothing but admiration for it.

    To be honest, that Peck/Huston anecdote sounds a bit apocryphal to me, and Oswald Morris reported that the story Huston liked to tell about the whale getting away was exaggerated – only a small mock-up got away; it’s obvious if you watch the film that at no point is a full-sized whale mock-up used. I can’t seen any reason Peck would have had any control on whether Spielberg could have used footage in Jaws. Nonetheless the film’s influence on Jaws – as opposed to the novel’s influence on Benchley’s – is apparent; Spielberg quotes certain shots and Sainton’s score even seems to have flavoured Williams’ to my ear. I have certainly never had any trouble recognising Harry Andrews; one of the great British character actors.


  7. This is a brilliant review which makes me want to see the movie again, as it points out a lot of things I missed, like the symbolic use of Bikini Atoll. I especially like your description of Peck :

    “Nonetheless, Peck, with his lanky uprightness and air of physical force struggling to accustom itself to the weight of his false leg and the scar that has cleft his face, embodies Ahab as the Yankee golden boy regressed into primitivist spell-casting.”

    I remember thinking that Peck was rather too young and physically robust for the role, but still gave a powerful performance despite being somewhat miscast. Many years later, Peck returned to ‘Moby Dick’ in his last film, the 1998 TV movie starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab, where Peck played Father Mapple – by this time, at 80 plus, the golden boy has been scarred by age. I remember his scene as being one of the best in that movie, which has all the special effects etc but, if I’m remembering rightly, doesn’t quite have the driven quality of Huston’s movie.

    I think you are making a strong case for Huston as auteur here with the key themes you pick up from his early work – especially that “private madness” within an official quest which you describe, which would fit ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’, ‘We Were Strangers’ and probably several others too.


  8. Rod says:

    Hi, Judy.

    I absolutely loathed that TV-made version. Puny and literal and lacking all flavour. I’ve personally never had much trouble finding the auteur in Huston, although it seems difficult for others because he changed genres a lot and adapted so much respected literature, and yet the choices he made are telling, and the way he approached people is consistent. That “private madness” even bubbles in works like Reflections in a Golden Eye.


  9. Mitch says:

    If nothing else the Patrick Stewart 1998 version of MOBY DICK did nothing but affirm the 1956 version as definitive and unsurpassable.
    I agree with almost everything Mr. Heath writes except for the ending. The problem for me is that the climax is “under-edited.” We see too much of the whale thereby diffusing its effectiveness.


  10. Bill says:

    I loved your review of this film. I think it is such an ignored classic in every sense. I can’t imagine a more difficult task than to adapt Melville’s book, and yet Bradbury and Huston have managed to capture the feel of his sprawling narritive in the same efficient manner that Jackson captured Tolkien. I think that the only thing really neglected in your review is an apprasial of the soundtrack. I cannot say enough of the soundtrack: since I was a young man I loved it, purchased it as soon as I could, and at the age of 32 I now feel it is a one of the most evocative and effective soundtracks ever scored: it does the job of establishing the mood and creating an atmosphere of both adventure and dread. In fact, what I feel was chiefly missing (among other things) from the television remake with Patrick Stewart was the mood and energy established by the soundtrack.

    Anyway, i have more to say about this amazing film, but that is all I have to contribute right now. A great site and a great review!


  11. Rod says:

    Thanks for that, Bill. Indeed, I’ve come to love Sainton’s score very much indeed: it’s florid in a way that movie music isn’t usually, but it fits so well with the salty, overheated atmosphere. Sadly, it was his only film score, too. I’ve been unable to track down a CD of it, so I’m jealous of you there.


  12. Bill says:

    Amazingly enough, after years of looking, I found the soundtrack on iTunes! This was back in 2006, so I’m not sure if it’s still there, but I remember because I purchased it in anticipation of my return to Martha’s Vineyard for a viewing of the film Jaws sponsored by Netflix. Martha’s Vineyard was where Jaws was filmed, and having a whaling history of its own, I thought the score would be interesting to listen to on the long drive from Long Island. My sister was with me, and she was an almost fanatical fan of both the film and the soundtrack, and we listened to it on the way. Good times! Anyway, that’s where I snagged it strangely enough if you’re interested.


  13. Robert Ryan would have been perfect as Ahab, but Jack Warner insisted on a major star as Ahab since there was no female lead in the picture. Ray Bradbury’s saga concerning his relationship with Huston on MOBY DICK-an authentic ordeal – makes perfect sense if one remembers John Huston’s remark about the most essential trait of a film director : “sadism” . Huston was the perfect helmer for this film, no doubt. Also thought Philip Sainton’s musical score was terrific.


  14. Marilyn says:

    You’re right, Alan, Ryan would have been an outstanding Ahab. Peck is not my favorite actor, but that is not to say he didn’t do a good job here. Ryan would have been, IMO, better. Interesting comment about Huston – I do think in the context of films I’ve seen lately, particularly Beyond the Hills, that it is an apt description.


  15. Alan says:

    Amen Marilyn. When I asked Bradbury about Huston and Moby Dick, he rolled his eyes and said, “Don’t get me started!” He launched into a lengthy and fascinating recollection of why he got hired -Huston read his Saturday Evening Post story THE FOGHORN that also inspired the THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS- and the director’s intermittently cruel treatment of him over in England. “He phoned me and said, ‘Ray, let’s seek the white whale together’. Bradbury had never read MOBY DICK and stayed up most of the night trying to make sense of Melville’s tome before meeting with Huston the next morning to discuss writing the screenplay. There is no one left in the room like Ray and John


  16. Frank Gibbons says:

    Mr. Heath,

    I applaud your very fine treatment of a superior film. Huston’s “Moby Dick” is a major cinematic accomplishment and is , to my mind, one of the best adaptations of classic literature to the screen.


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