Whenever I decide to watch a film based on a work of classic literature, it’s always with a certain degree of trepidation. First, if it’s a work I haven’t actually read, as is the case with Moby Dick, there’s always the possibility that it’s been deemed a classic for reasons which won’t be apparent to me… which is to say, the story might not actually be any good. Then, even if the story is good, the film still runs the risk of not adapting the story well, or becoming pretentious due to the novel’s status as a “classic”, plus all the usual pitfalls films have.
The 1956 adaptation of Melville’s classic is a bit of a mixed bag. It has some flaws (largely driven from that pretentiousness, I feel), but it is also a meticulously-crafted film with a great performance from its lead actor, Gregory Peck.
Peck, who would later be known best for his role as the rational and charismatic Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, here plays the equally charismatic but far less rational Captain Ahab. Peck delivers Melville’s lines in a way that is captivating and really sells the audience on the idea that although Ahab is mad, it is a madness that is contagious. This would be the most important bit of casting in the film, as though we are introduced to the characters and plot through the narrator Ishmael (Richard Basehart), it is Ahab who has the camera’s focus for most of the film.
By contrast, the camera focuses on the strange bearded person in a woman’s bonnet for only a few seconds.
Orson Welles has a brief part as a preacher in the whaling community the ship departs from; it helps to set a lot of the tone of the movie, and apparently Welles wrote his own scene. Most of the other significant roles are played by actors who had only a few film roles prior to this movie, perhaps to avoid upstaging Peck or perhaps to keep costs down (or perhaps just coincidentally, I don’t know.) First mate Starbuck, arguably the secondary lead as the one who persists in trying to get Ahab to back down on his quest for the white whale, is played by Leo Genn, who is convincing as a God-fearing man with ample courage but a recognition of madness when he sees it. Harry Andrews plays second mate Stubb with a wise-cracking ease. Basehart’s Ishmael is more-or-less a blank slate, due to his primary purpose being as a narrator, somebody to reflect on the actions of other characters; still, Basehart does infuse him with some humanity and concern as a man who is simply swept up in events beyond his intentions. Friedrich von Ledebur, being Austro-Hungarian, is not exactly a natural choice for the Pacific Islander Queequeg, but 1950s Hollywood still hadn’t gotten its collective head around the notion that people didn’t have to be white to have acting talent. If one can overlook that, von Ledebur, heavily made up for the role, gives a passable performance as the stoic and sympathetic harpooner.
With enough tattoos, nobody will notice he doesn’t look or sound right, will they?
Being more than a few decades before CGI could viably replace a whale, and whales being notoriously difficult to get onto a film set, director John Huston opted for rubber models for most of the whale scenes. It’s actually pretty convincing, and should serve as a reminder to modern film companies that they don’t always have to go high-tech for solutions. (Mind you, a twenty-foot rubber whale is probably still pretty expensive to make.) Huston also went with a deliberate “look” to the film, altering the coloring process so that there would be a bit of a pastel effect to the scenes. This look helped to make it more convincing as a period piece; as noted before, people seem to expect that “old timey” stories don’t have the same color palette as today. One flaw to the work, however, is that in attempting to set the “mood” of the piece, Huston has several segments where the scene is focused on some piece of minutia, from scrubbing floors to watching gulls fly to idling on the deck while the ship is in a dead calm. Though these would serve to increase the tension in small doses, the scenes are lingered on for too long, leading to a degree of boredom.
Basically, if Ahab’s not on screen, neither is anything else of interest.
Those dull moments unfortunately serve as serious momentum-killers for this movie. Weighing in at 2 hours, it feels like it ran about 40 minutes longer than it needed to. With great cinematography, good acting, and a few cases of very meticulous make-up work, it seems like everything in this film was given serious consideration except for pacing. If you have the patience for the occasional bit of monotony, the film has a lot to recommend it; but if you’re looking for a movie that doesn’t meander its way to a conclusion, this is not that film.