An underrated work in John Huston’s filmography, Herman Melville’s massive novel Moby Dick is impossible to condense entirely as a film. However, Huston (with co-writer Ray Bradbury), managed to reduce the whole thing into two concise, yet exciting hours of cinema. Huston’s obvious respect for the source text, alongside the surprising expressiveness of his camera creates a nice balance throughout that appears both accurate and ahead of its time.
Ishmael (Richard Basehart) the narrator of the story, is a restless sailor intent on experiencing life on a whaling ship for the first time. New Bedford 1841: Ishmael shares a room at the Spouter Inn with the cannibal facially tattooed native harpooner Queequeg (Frederick Ledebur). The next morning, they board the Pequod led by Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) a menacing man with a wooden leg and a large scar on his right cheek. Ahab lost his leg in a fight with the legendary white whale Moby Dick and he’s determined to exact revenge. Ahab is rarely seen for the first quarter of the film, though the thump of his artificial leg can be heard below deck. A lot of time is devoted to the minutiae of sailing; rigging, unfurling masts and general upkeep as the ship heads for open seas. Once there, the focus shifts to chasing whales and the rather bloody business of harpooning and hauling them aboard.
When Ahab finally appears (Peck in black top hat and bearded in a Lincolnesque visage), he exhorts his men to keep their eyes open for the great white whale, nailing a Spanish gold ounce to the mast for the first man who makes the sighting. The crew quickly catches Ahab’s bloodlust to capture the white whale, forsaking everything else. As obsession takes over, the crew doesn’t hunt other whales, refuses to help another Captain search for his son and eventually disregard values they once held dear.
Gregory Peck was one of the best actors of the 20th century, but he seems a bit miscast here. While he gives the material his best shot, Peck is too much the refined gentlemen to be fully believed as the rough, obsessed, peg-legged seaman. Peck is too stiff to have been bold enough to have “shook his fist at God.” Someone a bit rougher around the edges might have been better suited for the role. Perhaps Peck knew this, as it’s been long reported that he wasn’t happy with his work in the film.
Though the film has some obvious issues, John Huston’s experience with the adventure genre and his obvious respect and affection for the source material make giving this this version of Moby Dick a look.
As explained in the extra “A Bleached Whale: Recreating the Unique Color of Moby Dick,” this film came to Twilight Time after an extensive eight-month restoration. I suggest you watch the extra for details on the fascinating process, but suffice to say, the result is an impressive 1080p transfer. The film has been color graded to the point of almost appearing black and white. Primaries do appear, particularly when the great whale spouts blood out its blow hole. While there are a few print flaws and scratches, this version of Moby Dick has never looked better.
The film’s DTS-HD Mono track is satisfying. For a single channel mix, there’s a surprising bit of punch, particularly in the film’s last half hour during the climatic chase after the whale. The powerful score by Philip Sainton, melodic and appealing comes through with convincing strength. Dialogue is clean, clear, and concise.
English subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Film Historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman: Kirgo and Seydor carry the conversation, digging into the adaption of the source material, John Huston’s tinkering with Ray Bradbury’s script, how Herman Melville’s life influenced his writing and more. They also touch on the performances and various aspects of the production.
- Isolated Score Track
- A Bleached Whale: Recreating the Unique Color of Moby Dick (HD, 5:41) A discussion of John Huston’s intentional color grading for the film. He intended for it to look like centuries old whaling prints, not inherent in the original negative. How the restoration was done is explained.
- Posters, Lobby Cards & Production Stills
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3:13)
- Six-Page Booklet: Contains some black and white and color stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s thoughts on the film.
There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either http://www.twilighttimemovies.com or http://www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.