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Moby Dick Movie Review

huston film john ahab

1956 – John Huston –

Director John Huston's adaptation of Herman Melville's complex classic novel of obsessive revenge has been criticized for its substantial trimming down of Melville's work, but the movie works on a dramatically effective thematic level. Captain Ahab's mad quest to hunt down the white whale that injured him years before is depicted faithfully with an intense performance by Peck. (Peck, however, later spoke of himself as being miscast in the film. He named the director as an ideal choice to play Ahab, and Huston reported that he had at one time thought of his father Walter as a good choice for the part.) The ambiguous yet somehow mystical nature of the whale itself, one of the central issues in the novel, finds its way threaded throughout the film. Consequently, like the novel, Moby Dick the film becomes not merely a tale of revenge but a tale of an obsessive, against-the-odds, and ultimately foolhardy quest to strike back at the impersonal and uncaring supernatural forces of Nature.

While the epic nature of Ahab's quest drives the story forward and gives the story its dramatic strength, many if not most of the other characterizations lack fully realized personalities. Even Ishmael (Richard Basehart), the narrator, seems only somewhat developed, making it difficult to understand, identify with, or sympathize with him. In the novel, Ishmael is almost as important a character as Ahab, but in this film adaptation he is little more than a narrator, overshadowed by the powerful captain.

An addition to Peck's strong performance and the interesting themes underlying the story, Moby Dick includes a number of exciting and suspenseful scenes, particularly those involving the actual hunt of the whale. Huston also does well to incorporate imagery, color, and sound to create an appropriately ominous atmosphere around Ahab and the almost supernatural whale (a 90-foot rubber model that was electronically controlled). Overall, the film has a memorable storyline and is photographed with sufficient artistic skill, but it does not take a great familiarity with Melville's novel to realize that much of the heart of the story has been gutted. Incidentally, the Massachusetts' waterfront portrayed in the movie is actually Youghal, Ireland, while many of the sea-going shots were filmed using the Irish Sea.

Cast: Gregory Peck (Ahab), Richard Basehart (Ishmael), Frederick Ledebur (Queequeg), Leo Genn (Starbuck), Orson Welles (Father Mapple), James Robertson Justice (Captain Boomer), Harry Andrews (Stubb), Bernard Miles (The Manxman), Noel Purcell (Ship's Carpenter), Mervyn Johns (Peleg), Francis De Wolff (Captain Gardiner), Edric Connor (Daggoo), Joseph Tomelty (Peter Coffin), Philip Stainton (Bildad), Seamus Kelly (Flask) Screenwriter: Ray Bradbury, John Huston Cinematographer: Oswald Morris Composer: Philip Stainton Producer: Vaughan N. Dean, John Huston for Moulin Productions; released by Warner Bros. Running Time: 116 minutes Format: VHS Awards: National Board of Review Awards, 1956: 10 Best Films of the Year, Director (John Huston); New York Film Critics Awards, 1956: Director (John Huston).

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