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Moby Dick
Drama, Adventure
IMDB rating:
John Huston
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab
Joseph Tomelty as Peter Coffin
Seamus Kelly as Flask
Philip Stainton as Bildad
Francis De Wolff as Captain Gardiner
Mervyn Johns as Peleg
Friedrich von Ledebur as Queequeg (as Friedrich Ledebur)
Edric Connor as Daggoo
James Robertson Justice as Captain Boomer
Noel Purcell as Ship's Carpenter
Royal Dano as 'Elijah'
Bernard Miles as The Manxman
Harry Andrews as Stubb
Richard Basehart as Ishmael
Storyline: This classic story by Herman Melville revolves around Captain Ahab and his obsession with a huge whale, Moby Dick. The whale caused the loss of Ahab's leg years before, leaving Ahab to stomp the boards of his ship on a peg leg. Ahab is so crazed by his desire to kill the whale, that he is prepared to sacrifice everything, including his life, the lives of his crew members, and even his ship to find and destroy his nemesis, Moby Dick.
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I loved this movie.
Watching Moby Dick if you've read the book is really quite satisfying -a few things are switched around but it's still the ol' whalin' tale of the sea. Of course, it doesnt have all of Melville's subplots and connotations you study in school, and thankfully, none of Ishmael's technical rants. You know, about the size and color of whale's livers. What I was really anticipating, though, was Ahab - Would he be crazy enough? How do you capture the pure insanity of the character? I concluded that Gregory Peck did as good a job as is humanly possible. The previous comment was right, he did look like Abe Lincoln.

A Fine Job of Filming a Challenging Novel
It would be impossible to make a movie that came up to the standard of the novel "Moby-Dick", but this film does a fine job of capturing some of the most important themes, and of telling a selection of the key parts of the story in an interesting way. It would be a temptation for any film-maker to put the focus on the action and the special effects, and thus ruin the heart of the book by downplaying its themes, as so many recent films have done with other classic material. Instead, John Huston's version concentrates on bringing out many of the complex internal and external conflicts of Captain Ahab, in sketching the crew members and their reactions to Ahab's monomania, and in portraying the atmosphere of frequent tedium, growing tension, and occasional dread aboard the 'Pequod'.

Richard Basehart's mild, pleasant demeanor makes Ishmael an appropriate mirror for the events and characters on the ship. Gregory Peck does rather well in the very challenging role of Ahab. Ahab is one of the most carefully-designed and demanding characters in literature, and lesser actors would simply be an embarrassment in the part. On screen, there is much to Ahab that just does not come across, and Peck's performance has to be judged with that in mind.

Leo Genn makes his scenes as Starbuck count, and several of the other crew members are portrayed well, albeit in much smaller parts. As Father Mapple, Orson Welles has only one scene, but it is an important one, in that it sets up some of the vital themes of the story ahead. Welles was an ideal choice, and his scene in the church is one scene that does come up to the high standard of Melville's novel.

While there may indeed be some areas in which this version falls short, and it's fair to point them out, it would be pretty difficult to improve on it in a cinema version of the story. And if taken on its own, it fits together well, making generally good choices as to what material would fit together and would work on screen, and in using the photography and settings to create the right atmosphere. For those who appreciate the depth of the original story, this has more than enough to make it worth watching.
Absolutely Brilliant Adaptation
Very minor spoilers ahead.

John Huston did a fantastic job adapting Melville's masterpiece for film. Ray Bradbury did an excellent job adapting the dialogue and exposition from the novel for the film. he took giant and important chunks of essential dialogue, without needing to take up the extraneous scientific jargon or soliliqiues that are better suited for the printed page than the screen. He remains faithful to Melville's vision, and the important symbolism is there. It's a very difficult job, and Melville's novel is a very difficult book to adapt, but Bradbury, who apparently hadn't read the book before adapting it, did one hell of a job.

The actors are great, and it's a shame they didn't win any Oscars. Gregory Peck is excellent as the sullen, vengeance-driven Captain Aheab. He made the role his own, and knew when to be passionate and when to be calm and quiet. Some parts of the novel may seem wordy to viewers, but are important in conveying Melville's meaning, such as Father Mapple's sermon on man's obedience to God. If you have a short attention span, and only like action films that are short on substance, this movie is not for you. Everyone else must do themselves a favor and watch this classic. This is an adaptation for the ages.
An Admirable Effort, Marred By Casting Decisions
If Gregory Peck at 38 was too young to play Ahab, the juvenile role of Ishmael should not have gone to 42 year old Richard Baseheart. Casting for the part of South Sea islander Queequeg would have presented a near-insuperable problem in 1956. John Huston's solution: unknown actor and personal friend Joseph Ledebuhr from Austria of all places. In the important role of Starbuck the first mate, torn between his duty and his Quaker faith, Leo Genn is tortured in spirit but looks more like the lawyer he started out as than a seafaring man.

The scenes aboard ship were appropriately briny and muscular. The best sequence, as another commenter noted, was the departure from New Bedford with its slow panning of the crewmen's wives, from blonde maiden to old crone with sprouting facial hair, in silent array at dockside. On their faces is etched the knowledge that some will be widows ere the whaling ship **Pequod** sails back.
Mad Obsession
MOBY DICK is famed as one of the greatest and most difficult to read novels of all time. The tale of a man obsessed with the destruction of a legendary white whale that took his leg and left him scarred has long been considered an allegorical tale of good and evil, looks at the differences in class structure and discusses the existence of God. At 822 pages that's a lot to transfer to a movie that last only an hour and 56 minutes but somehow it was done.

The story itself tells the tale of a young seaman named Ishmael (Richard Basehart) who signs aboard the ship Pequod, a whaling vessel run by one Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck). Ishmael is bunkmates his first night before they sail with a tattooed harpooner named Queequeg who has a set of shrunken heads on hand in the room. The two start off tentative but become fast friends as Queequeg teaches Ishmael the ways of the ship.

Eventually Ishmael meets the famed Captain Ahab who promises his crew to return with their ship filled with whale oil and success for all on board. But Ahab is a strange sort who also has an ulterior motive. He doesn't just seek whales but one in particular, a white albino whale feared by all and known as Moby Dick. The desire to find the whale is one filled with revenge as it was Moby Dick who took the leg from Ahab on another voyage.

The majority of the movie takes the time to set up the final confrontation between man and beast. Segments on dry land before the ship sets sail include a scene set in a church where the pastor preaches from the bow of a ship installed in the church. That pastor is played by Orson Welles who is nearly unrecognizable. The journey of the men, the harsh penalties for wrong doing and the long wait to find the whales they seek all take up a portion of the time.

When the great white whale is finally found Ahab promises those who follow him untold fortunes if they will but help him destroy the whale. His obsession with the whale becomes their own and all seem to set aside not just the fortune in whale oil they've already filled the ship with but their own safety as well. Larger than the ship they sail on the white whale seems as determined to insure none of them leave alive and the battle between man and beast is on display.

The movie is a mixed bag, entertaining for some and tedious for others. That it is a well-made film that tackled the chore of bringing the novel to life is worth noting and for that matter makes it one worth seeing as well. While the cast does a great job it is Peck who stands out as the near mad Ahab, determined to have his revenge at all costs.

The effects for the time are amazing to witness and the sequences involving the whale are fantastic. Done before the days of CGI as it would be accomplished now, the movie here offers practical effects. The whale is a terrifying sight to behold and imagining what it would be like to confront it on its own ground would be something I for one would choose to avoid.

Twilight Time is releasing the film in blu-ray format and as with all of their titles limiting it to just 3,000 copies. If interested make sure you pick yours up right away.
The whaling scenes…
Warning - some mild discussion about some of the action in the final scenes of 'Mody Dick' are discussed in the paragraphs following:

Early in the picture there were scenes of whale hunting that were so real, they simply had to be stock footage of actual whaling. Even so, they seamlessly cut together with the rest of the movie.

The scenes involving the whale, Moby Dick, were very good too, although obviously a special effect using miniatures. When compared to films like 'Jaws', or '20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea', however, this film holds up very well; in that no storm was necessary to help hide aspects of the final action scene; the way that '20 Thousand Leagues' made use of a storm to help along its Giant Squid scene. Also, the shark in 'Jaws' was a full-scale recreation, and a very good one, but being full-scale didn't necessarily help it in the realism department; when comparing it to the whale in 'Moby Dick'. – Moby Dick was made some twenty years before 'Jaws', and yet, perhaps its scenes hold up better when you factor in the period with which it was made.
Powerful Version
I was obsessed with whaling and whales when I was a kid and read every book in our public library on the subject. Way too young to comprehend it, I fought my way through Melville's Moby Dick and luckily went back to it when i was older and it is still one of my favorite novels. Agreed, it is almost impossible to "adapt" such a massive, insightful, rambling, too much detail-ridden book and even though there have been many versions, Huston's still shines. Sure, it is flawed but so much of it really works. I'm glad to see mostly praise for Peck's work here because I have always been fond of his performance as Ahab. In fact, you put his Atticus Finch and then his Ahab together and this is one fine film actor (not to mention the underrated yet brilliant Gunfighter). Most of the whale effects are stunning and in many ways, still better than the ill-fated recent USA Cable attempt. This film does get better with age. It's powerful, potent and passionate. Check it out.
Still the best adaptation of Melville's classic.
A few points of clarification for some of the last few comments. The film was indeed shot in Technicolor but with a special process developed by cinematographer Oswald Morris involving a desaturation of the color to resemble hand-tinted steel engravings of the 19th century - like the artwork plates that accompany the opening titles. The MGM/UA laser disc has restored the color well. If the sky looks almost grey (and not green or even magenta, as in faded prints) it is correct. The dialog is part Melville but mostly Bradbury and Huston trying to sound like Melville: "That bed is a coffin and those are winding sheets, I do not sleep Mr. Starbuck, I die..." is not Melville, but it's great... This is still the best adaptation of Moby Dick, the recent USA network version not withstanding. Patrick Stewart is not scary enough to be Ahab. If another version is made I would recommend Anthony Hopkins or Gary Oldman for the role (just dreaming...) and I would spare the audience nothing with regard to Melville's language - his words are as beautiful as Shakespeare's and should be treated with the same respect.
For hate's sake I spit my last breath at this movie
This movie is an interesting failure. Gregory Peck is not very well cast as Captain Ahab. He tries to make his performance as the monomaniacal captain work. However some scenes with him in it are just hilarious. For example I find his final confrontation with the giant white whale the funniest part in the film. He literally climbs on the back of Moby Dick and begins stabbing him with his harpoon while yelling obscenities at the whale. The whale is poorly constructed. It looks like a maniacal whale puppet come to life and then set in a bathtub with a bunch of model boats. One scene is even screened in so badly that I was surprised with how bad it looked even for its time. The only thing I liked about this film is Starbuck. I forget the name of the actor, but he does a lot better than Peck. He makes this film come close to working. However I feel that the most recent adaption of Moby Dick, a miniseries made in 2011 with William Hurt and Ethan Hawke, superior in every sense. True the whale in that film isn't really realistic, but comparing it to the one in this version you'll see the improvement. If you want to see a good adaption of the novel watch the 2011 miniseries. I haven't seen the adaption of Moby Dick with Patrick Stewart and Ted Levine, but it looks a lot better than this movie. The only adaption that seems beneath this one is the one made in 2010 by the SyFy channel called 2010: Moby Dick. This movie has horrendous casting, special effects that make Jaws 4 look realistic and a whale that can walk on land. What more can be said about 2010: Moby Dick. Another problem I found a problem in this adaption of Moby Dick is Ishmael. In the books it is hinted that he is a young man of about 20 or so. In this adaption he is portrayed as being in his late thirties or early forties. This film in the end is not worth your time.
Classic and Faithful Adaptation from Literature
I first saw John Huston's cinematic version of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" on Sunday afternoon television when I was a kid - I remembered enjoying it, but did not see it again for years. I finally saw it again last night, and was delighted to be able to revisit it again.

Firstly, the film is as faithful to the novel as could possibly be. This is definitely not a big-budget product aimed at a low common denominator of viewer intelligence! While it is obviously impossible to directly film much of Melville's long and discursive novel, consisting as it does of asides and Transcendentalist-style meditations, Huston more than adequately captures much of the content of the non-narrative content within the context of the novel's plot. He also remains faithful to the basic structure of the plot, in which the narrator Ishmael and his partner Queequeg appear to be the main protagonists at the story's outset, but fade into the background as the tale progresses, while Captain Ahab and First Mate Starbuck become the central characters. Given the fact that "Moby Dick" was the production of a major Hollywood studio, this is a daring use of an unconventional plot structure. Best of all, Huston and screenwriter Ray Bradbury faithfully preserve Melville's Shakespearean dialog (especially between Ahab and Starbuck) and really make it work on screen.

(What didn't make it to the screen is the novel's fairly overt homo-eroticism, but of course this was made in 1956.) The casting and performances are excellent, particularly by the leads Gregory Peck and Leo Genn (as Ahab and Starbuck, respectively). Peck makes the charismatic and tyrannical Ahab's monomania frightening and believable, and he is adept in his delivery of the poetic dialog. Genn's portrayal of the intelligent yet ineffectual and doomed Starbuck is quite moving. Not having heard of Genn elsewhere, I researched him on the site, and found that he had an interesting filmography; he's a very good actor, and it's a pity that he's not better known than he is.

The brief appearance of Elijah (Royal Dano) is also effective. Up until the point where he confronts Ishmael on the docks, the film - like the novel - had been mostly light-hearted, even sentimental. Dano's Elijah is genuinely creepy (like the captain against whom he prophesies), and marks a shift in the film's tone, which becomes increasingly intense and serious.

*SPOILER* Probably the portion of the film which will be most difficult for contemporary viewers to accept is the final confrontation with Moby Dick himself. It goes without saying that Moby Dick is a mechanically animated model and the Pequod and her crew are miniatures - to many contemporary viewers who are used to CGI, the special effects are going to seem antiquated. I'm not a big fan of CGI, so this wasn't a problem for me. I felt that the direction and cinematography in the final scenes were of such quality that the whale's assaults were intense enough to have me on the edge of my seat, and Huston & Co. successfully imparted the sense that Moby Dick really was not just any whale, but a kind of malevolent or demonic intelligence.

Now if only there could be more literary adaptations of this caliber in the movies ...
See Also
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