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Savant Review:


Moby Dick
MGM Home Entertainment
1956 / Color / 1:37 flat (should be at least 1:66) / 116m.
Starring Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn, James Robertson Justice, Harry Andrews, Orson Welles, Bernard Miles, Mervyn Johns, Noel Purcell, Frederick Ledebur
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Art Direction Ralph W. Brinton
Film Editor Russell Lloyd
Original Music Philip Sainton
Writing credits Ray Bradbury and John Huston
Produced and Directed by John Huston

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

with corrections from John Mastrocco

When it was new, Moby Dick was not considered a success, artistically or commercially.  The main reason audiences didn't come is that it had no love interest whatsoever, that and the fact that every kid in America thought of Moby Dick as a book they had been forced to pretend to read in school.  Warner's (whose logo has been retained on the front of this presentation) had made an early sound version, also a failure.  It altered the story to make Ahab a hero who brought his sweetheart along on the voyage to hunt the white whale!


Restless landlubber Ishmael (Richard Basehart) signs on to go 'a whaling with a native harpooner named Queequeg (Frederick Ledebur), only to land on the Pequod, a ship commanded by the obsessed Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck).  A hearty crew goes through a period of confusion, but is finally seduced by Ahab's bloodlust for the rogue monster whale, Moby Dick, that ripped off his leg and tore his body and soul asunder.  Ignoring the business of hunting whales, and even rejecting the pleas of another Captain to help in a search for his lost son, Ahab drives the Pequod into a suicidal fury.

Maverick director John Huston should have been called a director/gambler hyphenate, as he tended to always live on the edge of bankruptcy while drawing high pay from his prolific Hollywood work.  Moby Dick is a Moulin Production, perhaps made with European profits from his earlier success Moulin Rouge, proving that when Huston had a personal project, he sometimes would throw his own money into it as well.  The '50s marked Huston's first attempt to re-plant himself in Ireland, a base from which he would continue to make big-budgeted films for the major studios.  The success of The African Queen and Moulin enabled Huston to keep doing personal projects, often for Fox and Darryl Zanuck, like The Roots of Heaven, that continued a steady stream of interesting work.

To write the script Huston turned to then-hot science fantasy writer Ray Bradbury, a wordsmith who invariably found a poetic way out of any literary corner.  Bradbury still makes many public appearances talking about his life and times; I remember him coming to our High School way out in San Bernardino, and I went with my kids to see him at my daughter's High School in 1997.  His account of how he proposed 'organic' visual miracles for Nicholas Ray's King of Kings made for great listening.  On Moby, Ray liked to joke that the book's actual plot comprised about three chapters out of 50 - the rest were taken up with essays on whaling, and of course Melville's moral-spiritual arguments.  Savant actually broke down and read the book after MGM's fairly nice laserdisc came out in 1996; and found it fascinating, a great read.  There's one wild chapter arguing the moral distinction between a 'loose fish', and a 'fast fish' that I go back and read every once and a while just for the enjoyment of it.

Bradbury stuck faithfully to Melville's story and brought out and enlarged the characters.  Ishmael remains something of a genial cypher provding an advent into the world of whaling.  Starbuck's (wonderfully played by the great Leo Genn) role is enlarged considerably, and the hint that he might assassinate Ahab becomes a good scene.  Bradbury's one outright change is to move a seer named Elijah (Royal Dano) earlier in the tale, to the dock to fortell doom to the crew of the 'damned' Pequod.  His prediction of 'seeing land where there ain't no land', and the dead Ahab returning from a watery grave to becon all to follow him, are a good inclusion ... considering that Bradbury and Huston declined to give Ahab a girlfriend or hoke the story up with more extraneous material, this bit of hocus-pocus helps give the tale a sinister edge without warping things.

Highly realistic about whaling, Moby Dick plays almost like a ghost story, or a greek myth.  It is animated by vengeance, grave oaths, and Ahab's diabolical pact with his own crew.  A gold ounce (an Ecuadorian Sucre) nailed to the masthead becomes a visual talisman, and in a scene worthy of Homer, the sails are ripped from their riggings while Ahab tames the 'green lightning' with his force of will.  The entire crew become charged with Ahab's personal obsession.  All seem to believe in superstition of one kind or another and for Ahab to sell them his own, with rum and promises of greatness, is no stretch.  What is a great leader, except a man who can impart his personal ambition into large numbers of men?  Starbuck is an anchor of reason and courage who lacks the charisma to steer events away from blasphemy, sin not only against God but against the whaling profession.  It's a really well-developed conflict, far more serious than the narcissistic 'professionalism' practiced by the heroes of Howard Hawks.  1

Gregory Peck has been much maligned as being stiff in the role of Ahab.  He's actually quite good, but his persona as the 'handsome, decent guy with the deep voice' worked against audience acceptance at a time when movie stars weren't encouraged to stretch their range in big films.  The reserved, slightly removed tone of the film probably kept many viewers from engaging deeply in the characters, who neither had cute dogs or sidekicks with funny mannerisms to keep the yahoos entertained.  Instead we get a handful of portraits of colorful sailing men that are more than credible: Harry Andrews' second mate, a totally believable jolly salt; Noel Purcell's somber carpenter, Orson Welles' Jehovah-like preacher, Mervyn Johns' clever bible-toting shipping clerk.   Best of all is the great Frederick Ledebur (The Roots of Heaven, The 27th Day, Slaughterhouse-Five) as the ritually-scarred 'cannibal prince' Queequeg, who follows heathen superstitions but is welcomed in the puritan world of New Bedford whaling purely for his skill with a harpoon.  It's interesting that Melville made his three harpooners primitives from three different continents - an African, an American Indian, and an East Indian headhunter.

Moby Dick was shot in Ireland and off Portugal, and is one of those films where you can tell a lot of of it was actually shot at sea.  As we've all learned from Spielberg's trials with Jaws, trying to do dialogue scenes on a live boat on a real sea can be a frustrating experience, what with the light and the ocean changing constantly, and (if you want to show a horizon) the obvious problem that other boats are going to ruin your sightlines.  Moby Dick has just enough of this kind of footage to give it the feeling of 'being there.'  There is a lot of process work of one kind or another, plus some forced cutaways to massed seagulls, that sometimes work, and sometimes don't.

The special effects were actually pretty amazing, but didn't go far enough to convince 1956 audiences that they were watching more than a large model of a whale.  Accounts from the time talk about a full-scale mechanical swimming whale that was used for a couple of days at sea, but which then sank like a rock, causing the production to go back to the drawing boards.  Perhaps the effects needed were just too ambitious for the time; Savant always thought they looked spectacular, even if Dick's jaw seemed a bit mechanical.  The views of the whale breaching in the mist, and especially attacking the Pequod, with Philip Sainton's exciting music, works for me.

All in all, MGM's DVD of Moby Dick is a reasonable disk.  Since it was released in 1956, it was originally shown widescreen, cropped to 1:66 or 1:85 like any other movie of the time, but MGM has once again given the film a fullscreen transfer, probably cropping a bit off on both sides.  The image is good but has none of the delicate color feeling of the original.  The LA County Museum showed it several times to audiences that marvelled at its strange color scheme - shot in Eastmancolor but printed in Technicolor, a fourth black and white pass was added to the three Techicolor dyes to provide even more control, subduing colors some and greying out others.  Seen in an original Technicolor print, the effect was like an illustration in an old book.  2  MGM's various versions look okay, but are simply transfers from the negative without reference to the original prints (like anyone at a studio cares about such things on a 'minor' film like this?).  Just the same, it's nothing to write home about.  At least there isn't much grain, and the bit rate looks sufficient to carry the wide action shots.  The only extra is a trailer that doesn't seem to know how to sell the movie.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Moby Dick rates:
Movie: Very good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Alphapak case
Reviewed: June 17, 2001


1. Hawks' Red River is often called Moby Dick on horseback.  The similarities end in the (very enjoyable) horse opera when the major conflict of the story is resolved over a single fistfight - there never really was a conflict at all because the father-son heroes are both 'professionals.'

2. Other attempts to do the same thing have not been as successful.  There was a style in the '60s & '70s of using a coral filter on period pictures to subdue the colors, and yield an 'antique' look.  Zulu, for instance, was shot straight, with the bright white and red uniforms of the soldiers popping off the screen.  Its sequel, Zulu Dawn, was filmed completely with this coral filter that flattened out the color range and added an orange-ish tinge to everything.  Not that it hurts the film, by the way: Zulu Dawn, never seen on video in its Panavision splendor or in its original Dolby Stereo, is the best battle epic Savant's ever seen and will make a terrific DVD when somebody gets around to it!

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