You really can’t put a book like Moby Dick on the screen. There’s no way to duplicate the experience of reading Melville’s words and being drawn into the ecstatic chaos and the terrifying poetry of his world. But John Huston was never one to shy away from a challenge, and in fact, he seems to have enjoyed taking on projects that tested him. If his version of Moby Dick isn’t completely successful, it’s still a beautiful and powerful adaptation that preserves much of what was most important in the book.
One of the problems in making a commercial film from Moby Dick is that it’s less a novel than a cosmic meditation on God, man and nature. There’s very little plot. At the beginning an innocent young man gets on a boat with a crazed captain in search of a white whale. At the end they find the whale, the boat is destroyed, and the young man is left floating in the middle of the ocean. In between, Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, offers his musings on life, death, the ship, the sea, and endless ruminations on whales.
Huston hired Ray Bradbury, who at that point had never written a screenplay, to fashion a script from the book. While the two men had great admiration for the other’s talent, apparently they didn’t get along at all. The experience was a traumatic one for Bradbury, but for the most part Huston was very pleased with his work, and the finished product gave the director an admirable adaptation to start with.*
There are moments in the film that capture Melville beautifully, and one of them is the opening sequence where we see Richard Basehart as Ishmael, strolling through the countryside, following the course of the water as he makes his way to the shore. Basehart was the perfect choice for the central character. He keeps us with him all the way, Ishmael playing the fascinated witness to Ahab’s monstrous madness. Basehart is surrounded by a marvelous supporting cast. On his arrival in New Bedford, the young sailor is greeted by Stubb, and Harry Andrews plays the veteran seaman with a vigor that is both intimidating and ingratiating. Orson Welles delivers Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah with a sober gravity and a heartfelt humility that serves as the perfect prologue to this story of a man who dares to defy God.
Many people have criticized Gregory Pack’s performance as Ahab. Huston defended Peck, and I have to say I side with the director, though with some reservations. I think Peck has all the steely resolve that Ahab should have, and he is convincingly commanding as the captain who seduces his crew into following him to the gates of hell. On the other hand, I feel that there’s a certain weight or depth that’s missing. I don’t know if I would say that Peck is miscast. The role must be incredibly difficult to play, and there are probably few actors who could really take it all the way.
Opposing Ahab is Starbuck, and Leo Genn plays the part with impressive conviction. Starbuck is the voice of morality, a humble man who believes that in doing their work the whalers are serving humanity and serving God. Genn does a fine job of portraying the chief mate’s conflicted feelings as he slowly realizes that the captain has no interest in anything except pursuing the white whale. Starbuck is a Quaker, but he is so deeply disturbed by his captain’s conduct that he finds himself contemplating mutiny, and eventually murder. It’s a striking performance that’s easy to overlook, because the actor is so completely immersed in the role.
Oswald Morris, the tremendously gifted cinematographer who shot the movie, says that Huston wanted to recreate the look of nineteenth century steel engravings. After extensive tests, Morris hit on the idea of desaturating the color image and adding a grey image over it. This approach imbues the film with a dark beauty, giving the sailors’ faces, the weathered boat, and the glowering sea a grim, storybook look. The score by Philip Sainton is good and supports the drama well, but it is the source music, the various songs sung by the crew and the townspeople, that bring us into this peculiar world of whaling towns, whaling boats and whaling men. There is the wild dance at the New Bedford inn, accompanied by a boisterous accordion. There is the solemn hymn sung by the church’s congregation as the prelude to Father Mapple’s sermon. And there is the ringing chant that the whalers shout out as they row steadily towards murder or death. This is the music that these people sing in celebration and in sorrow, the music that is woven into the fabric of their lives.
Huston does a magnificent job of portraying both the wonder and the terror that must have been inextricably intertwined on a nineteenth century whaling ship. The director was an adventurer himself, and was constantly searching for projects that would challenge him and challenge his audience. This didn’t always work out. It’s not easy to combine action with introspection, especially when you’re shooting on the ocean in bad weather and the budget is spiraling out of control. I feel like the final sequence, the whalers’ attack on Moby Dick and the murderous revenge he takes on them, goes by too quickly. Huston has written about the extreme difficulties that his crew had filming at sea, and it’s possible they couldn’t get all the footage they needed.
In the end it doesn’t matter whether Huston pulled it off completely. At its best the film is so rich and so powerful, so subtle and so complex, that it seems foolish to complain of its faults. Most commercial filmmaking is based on familiar formulas because it’s easier to turn a profit when you play it safe. Huston didn’t play it safe. He was always ready to take a chance, and often found himself out on a ledge, dancing on the brink. For an artist, that’s not a bad place to be.
Years later Bradbury wrote a short teleplay titled The Banshee, which is based on his stormy relationship with Huston. It’s both creepy and funny, and Peter O’Toole is devilishly perfect as the autocratic director, whose name happens to be John.