In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “Even at just 38 years old, Gregory Peck had the gravitas to make Captain Ahab inspiring, threatening and terrifying.”
“To be enraged with a dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct is blasphemous.”
I rarely read more than one book at a time. If I start a book, then that’s the book I’m reading until it’s done and I can move on to the next. But in my lifetime, there are two that took me months to read, with fits and starts, and countless other books read during those breaks. Both classic epics that are yet to be adapted into definitive big screen versions. One was The Count of Monte Cristo. But I don’t feel bad about that one taking so long to read. It was originally written as a serial, appearing regularly in a newspaper, so it’s almost designed to be read over a long, long time.
The other, was Moby Dick. It’s well over a decade ago now, but if I remember right, it may have taken me over a year to get through it. And it’s because of the long, boring, overly detailed stretches about the intricacies of whaling. Which to me, makes a movie adaptation so simple, ditch that stuff, stick to the story of the white whale and you’re done. And that’s exactly what John Huston did in 1956, with his big screen version of Moby Dick.
Seeking adventure in 19th century America, Ishmael (Richard Basehart) signs on as a crew member aboard the Pequod, a whaling ship out of Connecticut. The night before shipping out, he’s scared to find a tattooed cannibal in his room carrying a shrunken, human head. But it’s OK, because this piece of tone deaf, racist story telling leads to the best friendship in the story, that of Ishmael and Queequeg (Frederich vo Ledebur). Formerly a tribal king, now a harpooner, Queequeg is also employed on the Pequod.
Chasing sperm whales for their blubber that can be turned into heating oil, the Pequod makes its way across murderous seas as Ishmael learns the ins and outs of life on the ocean. Meanwhile, their peg legged leader, Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) stays mostly isolated in his cabin. Until they get their first kill. But Ahab isn’t impressed by the run of the mill sperm whale they slaughter. He’s after one specific whale, the legendary white whale, nicknamed Moby Dick, that took his leg years ago. Soon, Ahab’s obsession infects the ship with everyone else becoming blinded by his quest for revenge.
Reading the IMDB trivia section for Moby Dick, there are a lot of examples of Peck being dissatisfied with his performance and others calling him out as being miscast. Sure, he was only 38, and Ahab should be closer to 60. But this is Gregory Peck, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Even at 38, he had the gravitas to make Captain Ahab inspiring, threatening and terrifying. And the makeup job is more than good enough to believably add the requisite years to his 38.
I know I was quick to dismiss the technical, whaling sections of the book, but watching the movie, I saw some of their merit. Their much more economical inclusion works to establish just how dangerous and difficult the job was. So when the stories of Moby Dick begin to roll out, they come with a little more dread. The epic nature of the book also leaves a lot more room to build on the myth of the white whale long before the crew ever spots him. Which is where the movie kind of fell flat for me.
At under two hours, it really has to race through everything. An amazingly delivered sermon by a priest played by Orson Welles is fantastic because it’s Orson Welles, but it doesn’t quite sell the danger of what these men are about to embark on in the same gut churning way of the book . Ahab’s one impassioned speech about why he’s chasing Moby Dick is a great acting moment from Peck, but it also feels like exposition for the sake of moving the story along. A little more dread would have helped from a story standpoint, but also from a technical standpoint. Because the dodgy toys and models used for the whale attack scenes are only more laughable when you don’t care about the fate of the characters.