Even if you haven’t read Herman Melville’s 19th century novel, who doesn’t know the story of Moby Dick? Captain Ahab and his wooden leg obsessively hunting the titular white whale off the Cape of Good Hope. Moby Dick means all kinds of things to a great many people, in the case of this 1956 adaptation, film director John Huston.
Before this lavish Technicolor adaptation, Melville’s great American novel had only been committed to celluloid once, or sort of twice; John Barrymore starred in 1926 in The Sea Beast as Ahab, which was then remade with sound in 1930 as Moby Dick, as the silent film gave way to the pre-Code Hollywood age of talkies. Huston’s version was the first screen take on the source material to truly capture the scope and majesty of Melville’s tome, and no one since in over sixty years has really tried to better it, even if certain seafaring pictures have emulated it, or allegorically science-fiction—Star Trek in particular—has worked to capture the spirit of Moby Dick on a different canvas. Perhaps nobody has tried to match Huston’s version, co-written incidentally with legendary science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, even with more advanced effects and filming techniques, because it would be hard to do a better job.
By degrees theatrical, Shakespearian, moving and thrilling, Huston’s Moby Dick remains a gorgeous piece of late Hollywood Golden Age filmmaking to this day.
Television has given us a modern Ahab in talented thespians Patrick Stewart and William Hurt, while schlock-house The Asylum served up Barry Bostwick, but no one surely could capture the broken majesty of literature’s most famed sea Captain than the incomparable Gregory Peck?
Though we don’t meet Ahab until at least half an hour into the picture, his spectre looms over a story Huston takes his time unfurling, and when Peck does saunter onto the bridge of the good ship Piqoud, he commands the screen as the ill-fated seaman, haunted by his failure to bring Moby Dick to bear. His appearance is well-earned, as Huston introduces the picture through the eyes of Ishmael (an engaging Richard Basehart), who gives the audience a way into the world of the New England crew, heavily thanks to his friendships with the amiable Stubb (Harry Andrews) and Native American sailor Queequeg (Friderich von Ledeber), a relationship which Huston captures in a particularly charming way, highlighting the breaking down of cultural barriers between two men who face the challenges of the same sea.
Huston even makes time for an extended cameo from Orson Welles, by this point established in Hollywood particularly after Citizen Kane as a cinematic titan, and an entire space is carved out for him to deliver a powerful monologue about the Jonah and the whale parable from a pulpit designed like the bough of a sailing ship. It’s wonderfully indulgent but just to have Welles in the picture, its worth it. Moby Dick has such a craft about it, in script and story, that Huston is free to command the screen with some terrific production design. Come the climactic battle with the whale, after Ahab and his crew have suffered plenty of hardships on their voyage, even with effects which naturally have aged over time, the denouement is no less thrilling and powerful.
In putting together this re-release, StudioCanal bring Huston’s film to life well beyond the visual and dramatic spectacle with some engaging bonus material:
- Interview with Script Supervisor to Moby Dick and many more John Huston films – Angela Allen
- Audio commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor and Nick Redman
- A Bleached Whale – Recreating the Unique Colour of Moby Dick (5:41 featurette)
- Original theatrical trailer
- Behind the scenes stills gallery
Though repeated on screen numerous times, it is hard to see how John Huston’s Moby Dick adaptation could be equalled. It looks fantastic, contains some fine performances, and brings Melville’s tome to life in a vivid way. It’s a picture, based on one of America’s greatest pieces of literature, that deserves to be rediscovered.
Moby Dick is available now on BluRay from StudioCanal.