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  Moby Dick The Loon With The Harpoon
Year: 1956
Director: John Huston
Stars: Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn, James Robertson Justice, Harry Andrews, Bernard Miles, Noel Purcell, Edric Connor, Mervyn Johns, Joseph Tomelty, Francis De Wolff, Philip Stainton, Royal Dano, Seamus Kelly, Friedrich von Ledebur, Orson Welles
Genre: Drama, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Call him Ishmael (Richard Basehart), and he wants to see the world, or at least he wants to see the sea as his ambition is to venture onto the waves on a whaling ship, which sounds about the most exciting profession a man of his means can experience. He shows up at a New England fishing village in the hope that one such vessel will be recruiting, since after all, there is always a need for whalers, and as he arrives at the tavern with darkness fallen, he catches a glimpse through the window of a striking figure and wonders who he could be. That is Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck), is the reply, not somebody Ishmael should be crossing paths with, but it seems he is inexorably drawn to him...

Let's get this out of the way: Moby Dick, the Herman Melville novel, is probably impossible to do justice to on the screen, no matter what incarnation it may be, from this John Huston effort to Tom and Jerry's wayward Dicky Moe, to Patrick Stewart giving Ahab a go on television to Ron Howard's "true story" version in the twenty-tens. It's one of those properties where you're on a hiding to nothing in trying to be faithful to it, for the text is so dense that it is impossible to create a visualisation, especially when there's always someone more literate than you who will be only to pleased to point out all the ways you have gone wrong in your optimistic translation attempt.

But John Huston was not the sort of director you said no to, and he had planned this version for decades, earmarking it as a perfect vehicle for his father Walter Huston. Alas, he died before this went into production, and Peck was hired on the proviso that the studio wanted a big star to lead it rather than a character actor; inevitably, from the star the purists felt he was miscast, and indeed many audiences felt the same. The result was a film that failed to attract business at the box office, and even well into the twenty-first century had not managed to make its money back into a profit. But more than the production, was it the subject matter that gave viewers their reservations?

Even in the mid-fifties whaling had seriously gone out of fashion, unless you were Japanese, as it was widely recognised the industry had visited untold damage on the population of these ocean creatures which even now, with whaling bans in force across the globe, they have not recovered from. Therefore an entire film that asks us to be invested in the tale of a man determined to hunt down a whale so he can destroy it can be unpalatable with the odds of the species' survival in peril either back when it was set or decades later, whenever you were watching the movie. Certainly the ecologist in the mass audience saw to it that Howard's endeavours were scuppered from the outset, and that was more or less the case with Huston. Then there are the weighty themes: man against nature, man against God.

With dialogue taken from Melville, adapted by Ray Bradbury (one of his last books was Green Shadows, White Whale, a semi-fictional account of his work here, and a bit of point-scoring against Huston who he had decidedly mixed feelings about), the almost exclusively male cast were given to chuntering their way through their lines as if they were reciting scripture, which in the case of guest star Orson Welles as the preacher, he was. A British-funded film, this was peppered with venerable Brit character actors, with some Irish as well, in support to Peck, and they certainly had their worth of anecdotes to relate on the subject of making Moby Dick, a project that it was better to reminisce about than watch, for many. But its stark, overbearing quality was at least powerful, and the scenes when Ahab finally catches up with the monstrous white whale of the title were worth waiting for, it was just that pulling off the metaphor for attacking the Great Almighty Himself was a little beyond its reach. Music by Philip Stainton.

[Studio Canal release this title on Blu-ray with these features:

Interview with Script Supervisor to Moby Dick and many more John Huston films - Angela Allen
Audio commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor and Nick Redman
A Bleached Whale - Recreating the Unique Colour of Moby Dick (5:41 featurette which explains why this the best they could get the film to look considering the material they had to work with)
Original theatrical trailer
Behind the scenes stills gallery.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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