Some books beckon to filmmakers like sirens on a cliff.
I fully expect that sometime in the next few years, we’ll see another boat dash itself against the rock wall that is The Great Gatsby. And it hardly bears mentioning how many cinematic luminaries have found themselves mired in the quicksand that is Don Quixote, every effort to extract themselves only sinking them deeper into the muck.
And then there’s Moby Dick. It’s a story that has been adapted and tweaked and played with over and over again, a novel that has so entered our cultural currency that even folks who have never read the book (like, ahem, this writer) can give you a real solid rundown on the synopsis.
Call me Ishamel. Crazy Ahab with a peg-leg. White whale. Ship goes boom.
But the ineffable nature of Melville’s writing keeps readers and critics returning to the text, elevating it above some mere adventure novel. And while many adaptations see fit to strip the story to its essentials as ‘just’ a whale of a tale, many filmmakers have sought to grapple with that same ineffability. Hell, just last year Ron Howard marshaled a movie star and all the tech a blockbuster budget can summon for his riff, In the Heart of the Sea. Didn’t work out so hot for him.
I mean, we’re talking about a two hundred year old book and people still can’t agree on what the fucking whale represents. Trying to wrestle it into physical life seems a hopeless pursuit.
Well, John Huston gave it as good a shot as anyone could hope for, and the results are newly released on a pristine Blu-ray from Twilight Time. Starring Gregory Peck (who looks SO MUCH like Futurama’s Evil Lincoln in this that it’s genuinely distracting), John Huston’s Moby Dick sees both characters and filmmaker trying to capture that which is by definition impossible to capture, and the results are fascinating, enthralling, maddening, and finally frustrating.
Huston had long-considered Moby Dick a dream project, and he drafted No Bullshit Genius Ray Bradbury to help him pen the screenplay (few people in this, that, or any age can match Bradbury’s prose poetry). The process was a bitter one (Bradbury derived MULTIPLE stories out of what a wretched experience it was to work with Huston) and things did not get much better on set. Hollywood legend has it that the prop whale, or part of the prop whale, being used for the ocean-set action drifted away on the tide… with Gregory Peck stranded on top.
Hearing about how hard everyone worked and how much they persevered through the tough times, it makes me want to pat the film on the back and congratulate it just for making it past the finish line. But just because a film’s heart is in the right place doesn’t mean it’s beating properly, and Moby Dick remains more a fascinating relic than a functional film.
The wrongness starts with the casting. Gregory Peck seems like an interesting choice for Ahab, but he’s swallowed alive by the prosthetics, by the old-timey dialogue all made up of “Ye”s and “Thou”s, and by the wild-eyed mania that simply does not fit into his range as an actor. Peck’s casting sometimes seems like a sneaky work of genius, with Ahab as the dark, “Mirror, Mirror” reflection of the paternalistic ideal that Peck embodied so easily in other films. The idea of an Atticus Finch whose nobility has been poisoned and who drives his fellow men on into needless death, there’s some real meat on those bones but Huston and Peck never get there (and I don’t think I’m talking out of turn. Years later, Spielberg tried to get the rights to footage from Moby Dick for the theater scene in Jaws [Robert Shaw’s Quint would be introduced laughing his ass off at the film’s depiction of whaling] but Peck refused to grant permission, allegedly because he was embarrassed by his performance).
Richard Baseheart plays supposedly fresh-faced newcomer Ishmael, but Baseheart looks a full decade older than most of his castmates, including Peck. There are interesting tangential faces that pop up throughout the movie (including Orson Welles, who stops the entire film cold so he can recite what feels like a ten-minute sermon. From the bow of a boat. Inside a church.), but almost everyone fades into the background as the film progresses and Peck becomes the all-consuming center of the show.
Like so much else in the film, it’s a gamble that would have paid off spectacularly well, had it paid off. But it didn’t, and so it didn’t.
The movie often seems to be pushing the boundaries of what was possible in 1953, and the whale attacks, when they arrive, are suitably visceral and discombobulating. Moby Dick’s attacks play less like fun setpieces than as holy acts of a vengeful Old Testament God, and Huston wrings every drop of religious awe and terror out of these moments.
The sequences that work like gangbusters make the weaker sections fall all the more flat. One gets the sense that, had Huston connected with what he was swinging for, we would hail his Moby Dick as one of the great masterpieces of its day. And it’s not like Huston hadn’t been successful with previous attempts at dramatizing the pursuit of the unknown and the unknowable (this is the writer/director who immortalized the line, “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”) or the way men drive each other into mania with only darkness for a reward (this is the writer/director who reduced Humphrey Bogart to feral greed in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and then lopped the fucker’s head off). This one just seems to have gotten away from him, a fascinating ‘almost’ of a picture.
Available from Twilight Time in a Limited Edition of 3,000 units.