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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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Gotten Better With Age
When John Huston was casting for Moby Dick he got to make it on condition that he get a name actor to play Ahab. He went to Gregory Peck who was surprised by the offer. Given his image and the roles he had played up to that time, Peck thought he'd be better cast as Starbuck the first mate. Nevertheless he agreed to do Ahab.

Peck got mixed reviews at the time, but over the course of 50 years his performance has gotten better with time. The film itself which was shot in Ireland and Wales has also aged well. It's a nice depiction of life on a whaling ship in the 1840s and the crew of the Pequod are nicely cast in their roles.

Orson Welles was set to do his own adaption of Moby Dick and canceled his film when he heard his friend John Huston was doing Moby Dick. Welles asked about doing Ahab, but was given the small role of Father Mapple, the minister who blesses the Pequod's voyage. In fact Huston gave Welles a free hand to do the scene as he saw fit and the results are gratifying.

Of course Herman Melville's novel is about obsession and vengeance. I've always thought the point of Moby Dick is that the evil white whale who Ahab so personalizes and demonizes is just a whale doing his whale thing trying to stay alive. It is in fact the whalers who hunt him and his kind. And Ahab losing his leg is what we would call an occupational accident. The evil is how Ahab seduces the whole crew into his own madness, even first mate Starbuck, played winningly by Leo Genn who is the voice of reason and civilization.

Other cast members to note are Harry Andrews as second mate Stub, Friedrich Ledebuhr as Queequeg the Pacific Islander harpooner, and of course Richard Basehart as Ishmael who tells the tale.
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.
Colorful, poetic film almost captures Melville's mystical quest
In the strict, literal sense, it is impossible to make a movie out of Moby Dick. The best that one could hope for would be an intelligent condensation of the story's main events, with a reasonably close approximation of the book's characters.

In this, Ray Bradbury's screenplay and Huston's direction succeed admirably. Though the motivations of the characters have to be simplified, and the story streamlined to fit the running time of a movie, there are scenes that come remarkably close to the spirit and atmosphere of the original. The scene in Ahab's cabin, when he argues with Starbuck about his reasons for wanting to destroy Moby Dick, and Starbuck declares that the idea is blasphemous, Gregory Peck and Leo Genn rise to the almost Shakespearean tone of the novel. An even more dramatic scene occurs near the end, when Ahab, in a relaxed and even cheerful mood, shows an unexpected side of himself, as he describes the beauty of nature that surrounds them. But in a masterful bit of adaptation of Melville's original dialogue, Ahab shows his madness once again, as he begins to ramble about Fate and destiny. Starbuck pulls a gun and announces his intention to kill Ahab, but can't go through with it. The closeup of Peck gazing into Genn's eyes, and saying solemnly, " The act's immutably decreed. T'was rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled" , is pure Melville captured on film. It's almost the essence of Moby Dick in one short scene.

This is a wonderful film, full of adventure, humor, suspense, strange characters and unearthly mysteries, just like Melville's novel. The acting is of a high order, the music and cinematography amazing. I defy anyone to sit through the scene where Ahab nails the gold coin to the mast, and declares it a reward for the man who first sights the White Whale, and not be as excited as the crew, when they pass around the flagon of rum ,and wave their harpoons and shout " Death to Moby Dick!"
A great cinema classic based on a great literature classic
It requires considerable audacity to adapt such a masterpiece of world literature, all the more so that the novel's quality greatly relies on its inimitable style: how can one transpose this on screen? Huston succeeds by creating a distinctive visual style, cinematographically compensating what he loses on the literary side.

Also, he builds a forceful story from beginning to end. As a reminder, the scenario was written by the famous author Ray Bradbury together with Huston: a successful synergy between literature and cinema creators.



The first quality of the movie is its efficient selection of scenes and dialogues. This is a real challenge: the novel is long, even after disregarding its "documentary" parts about whales, whaling, sea, etc. (cumulated, as many as 40 chapters out of a total of 135). Hence the scenario had to make drastic selections. For instance, in the novel the Pequod comes across nine other ships (of which four encountered Moby Dick), while in the movie there are only two. Yet these represent the most striking meetings, with captains who respectively lost an arm and a son to the White Whale.

Essential scenes are almost all present, without feeling like a "reader's digest" of the novel: the movie perfectly holds together, with a balanced pace, not too slow nor fast.

Also, the movie follows its own logic, which sometimes triggers a change in plot structure. Notably, Moby Dick first appears after 75 minutes (out of a total of 110), which is early compared to the novel where he only appears in the last three chapters. This highlights the different internal logics of literature and cinema: in the novel, the late appearance is powerful because the White Whale remains a mystery until the very end. Herman Melville could compensate this delay with other scenes: encounters with other ships who came across Moby Dick, dialogues and considerations about him, documentary-like descriptions of whales in general and that one in particular, etc. However, since the movie had to disregard most of these scenes, showing Moby Dick at the end only would have been anti-climatic.

Conversely, the movie transfers the tempest to the penultimate scene while in the novel it is slightly before: cinematographically, it typically is a highly climatic scene, while literarily it is less so, especially considering that Melville uses the tempest as a counterpoint to other scenes.

Last, the movie operates some minor changes in the story which make sense, notably:

- Starbuck wants to kill an awaken Ahab (novel: while he is sleeping): it is visually more dramatic and allows a following dialogue between the two men;

- Ahab gives the gold coin to a shipmate (novel: keeps it for himself): since the movie is shorter than the novel, it cannot emphasise Ahab's negative aspects, which are offset elsewhere in the novel;

- Ahab's body is tied to Moby Dick at the end (novel: it is Fedallah's): visually, it is compelling since Ahab is a major character and his arm seems to incite his men to continue attacking the whale;

- After Ahab dies, Starbuck urges the men to continue attacking (novel: Starbuck stays on the ship): it seems Ahab's lust for revenge has spread like a disease, even to rebellious Starbuck.


First, image has a special texture close to pastel, produced by adding layers of black-and-white and sliver on top of the usual colours. This has multiple impacts: it creates a unique tone, fit for adapting a masterpiece; it gives an "antique" feeling on line with the diegetic period; it looks like a painting, similar to the ones shown during the opening credits. All this has a purpose: "Moby Dick", amongst other things, is a tale where narrative distance is essential ("Once upon a time…"), which Melville masterly rendered by his unique style. Hence the movie re-activates the strange sensation generated by the novel: narration sublimes the fable; it creates a legend by itself.

Additionally, shots are frequently saturated: close-ups, frame filled with faces, sails, ropes, etc. It is a paradox since most of the action occurs outside: broad shots are rare; we seldom see the sky. The movie opens in a forest and closes with a shot on a floating coffin. This saturation has multiple impacts:

- It aligns to the novel theme that the ship is a world in itself, with different ethnic origins and professions: we are immerged in the sailors' environment;

- It reinforces the fable-like feeling, since tales unfold at individual level ("They lived (un)happily ever after"). For instance the close shot on Moby Dick's eye echoes the one on Ahab's;

- It provides a baroque "thickness" to the opus, comparable to Melville's dense, ornate style.

Last, acting perfectly illustrates the story. It is emphatic, on line with the novel's tone and themes. Most actors' physique and approach perfectly fit characters: we feel Ishmael, Queequeg, Stubb, Flask, etc. could not be different. Gregory Peck as Ahab is convincing, but probably not as much as Orson Welles would have been, who was initially envisaged for the role and eventually gave a memorable performance of Father Mapple.


The novel "Moby Dick" is all-encompassing: it is altogether an adventure, an epic, a documentary, a tale, a parable, almost a myth. The movie brilliantly illustrates all these elements, bar the documentary parts. Yet, it is not a masterpiece: it could have been a longer, full-scale epic three- or four-hour long, to better render the sheer magnitude of the novel and include some revealing scenes (for instance, when the sailors erotically wade in the oil). Also, the dated special effects somewhat reduce awesomeness: Moby Dick seen afar is not quite impressive and the ship sinking at the end looks like a model siphoned into a bathtub. Nonetheless, the movie remains a rare successful adaptation of an eminent classic.
Easier to Watch than the Book to Read
I red Herman Melville's book "Moby Dick" some years ago and though the story was really captivating and I enjoyed it very much but somehow it seemed too long to me. This film version by John Houston lasts a couple of hours and I think it works very good as a resume of Captain Ahab's revengeful chase of the white whale. Don't get me wrong: the book is a classic and a very good one too but it is movies we're talking about here.

"Moby Dick" is a real good adventure film and Houston's direction is pretty accurate. He delivers the plot slowly but constantly up to the moment we are all waiting for: the appearance of the whale ("huge as mountain of snow"). In the meantime he shows the different characters on board the "Pequod" such as the professional Mr. Starbuck, the second in command; the tough and at he same time friendly Mr. Stubb; the mysterious Queequegg with his body covered by tattoos; and Ishmael the newcomer in search for adventure.

But the center of the whole thing is Captain Ahab with his leg ripped of by the white whale and living with the only purpose of taking revenge of the beast. Nothing else matters for him. And so obsessed Ahab is that he finally passes his madness into his men too.

Gregory Peck brings a fine performance as the tortured and insane Captain and he shows perfectly he has been a dead man long before his meeting at sea with Moby Dick. Leo Genn is good too as well as Harry Andrews as Stubb (I can't recall a bad performance from Andrews in all his many appearances as a supporting actor). Richard Basehart is correct in the role of Ishmael, though perhaps his acting is a little too light here.

The final battle between the men and the white whale is outstanding or even more if you consider it was made with the special effects of the 50's. Huston shows his skill here too.

Watch this film if you missed it (don't go for that recent too long all computer TV version starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab); you'll sure enjoy it if you like high classic adventure with psychology in the characters too.
Amazing film
Seen today for the first time, wanted to see it since long time ago but never had the chance to do it. Beginning with an applause to the novel, mix of allegoric hints of Shakespearean, Greek tragicomedy and mythology of almost any religion or culture, I think this film is at the same time an amazing exposition of a very hard worked script, understandable and captivating for any kind of audience either being young (the adventures story of a group of sailors with spectacular images of the ship Pequod) or mature and old people (the desperation and frustration of a solitary man utterly obsessed with a symbol -the whale- that leads to compare him with the man who reveals against what could be taken as an omnipresent and infinitely powerful God, after being challenged by him in a life or death duel) ending with the magnificent (to me again, since not many people agree with that) performance of G.Peck and the classic J.Huston's direction.

As a resume, a deathless masterpiece of the classic period of Hollywood.
Just Back From Mystic
For all my fellow movie buffs , especially those who loved this movie a trip to Mystic Ct is a must. I went there as a child and long remembered the claustrophobic feeling aboard an actual whaler that was probably the size of the Pequod. The Charles Morgan , which is berthed there is a "six-boat" whaler typically manned by a crew of 35-36 men. The bunks for the crew are 6 feet long and about 18 inches high and jammed together

The movie which I first saw in a "drive in " when I was five years old still affects me and all everyone in Mystic talks about is the accuracy of the 1956 film. My girlfriend , who has not seen the movie, will be forced to watch this movie after being regaled with unending stories about this movie. The many comments about this movie all contribute to to give a good overall view and I really don't have much to add but I did really like this movie. Hopkins as Ahab would be good or Oldman. DeNiro , who I love , I fear would give a repeat of his horrifyingly bad performance in Frankenstein and the amazingly bad remake of Cape Fear. The former smacks of John Wayne's unforgettable performance as Ghengis Khan. Robert Mitchum is unapproachable in the role of Max Cady in the original Cape Fear. Well anyway, watch this movie. Dream about a remake. I will not comment on the Patrick Stewart version which I believe was filmed in my neighbors round above ground pool over the summer a few years ago.
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.
" Just Because we see it, don't mean it's real "
There are many stories of the sea and the men who are drawn to it in ships. If one is looking for a film which awakens the ancient memories of the ocean, it's awesome power, it's ability to beckon and then destroy them, " Moby Dick " is such a film. In 1956, director John Huston passed up the opportunity to play the self-destructive Captain Ahab, and chose instead veteran actor Gregory Peck. Despite the fact many thought Peck was not the right man for the part (including Peck) the end product proved naysayers wrong. The film itself contains several direct passages from Herman Melvile's novel, which literally urges it along. From the beginning, with the main character stating Call me Ishmael this film invites the audience to witness whaling at the turn of the 19th century. It is the beginning of a young man's search for adventure and experience and encounters 'Elija' (Royal Dano) who warns him and his friend Queequeg (Friedrich Von Ledebur), that death awaits the 'Pequod'. Shipping from the port of New Bedford, the ship sails out to hunt whales for their oil. What Ishmael (Richard Basehart) learns is that his Captain is hell bent on personal revenge on one gigantic white whale called Moby Dick who crippled and disfigured him. Driven by incessant hatred, the Captain will not rest until the whale is dead. To that end, he will gamble his life, his crew, his purpose and ultimately his ship. Leo Genn plays Starbuck, the second in command, who will try and stop his Captain if he can. Harry Andrews plays Stubbs, the second mate. When the ship finally encounters the White Whale, it's a war of wills and makes for drama at it's very best. Perhaps that's what makes this movie a true Classic. ****
Faithful to the Novel
One movie that actually tried to reproduce the sense of the book. "Moby Dick" is one of my favorite books, so this film version means a lot to me. It was also the first movie I saw as a child of five. Huston really captued Father Mapple in casting Orson Wells. It has been reported elsewhere that Wells was "well-lubricated" for the final filming of this scene. He was still considered controversial in 1956 owing to his depiction of Hearst in "Citizen Kane". Wells' monologue, Father Mapple's sermon, was one of his finest moments in acting.

In the early 1970's I met a technical advisor for the whaling scenes. He was an old time mariner (in his 80s) with the improbable name of Spike Africa! He was one of the last U.S. seaman to hunt down and kill whales with a lance thrown from an open boat. He offered me a pair of lances he used to kill whales (harpoons hook the whale to drag the whale boat through the water after the whale. Lances are used to kill). I declined his offer owing to squeamishness. Spike was impressed with the detail that Huston followed to create the thrill and terror of the chase. Much original footage was edtited out of the movie. Gregory Peck's portrayl of Ahab was so definitive that Patrick Stewart seemed to copy his moves and inflections in the recent TV remake.

A great period movie although it could have been longer to capture more of Melville.
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