MOBY DICK. (1956) REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS.

moby dick bones

MOBY DICK. BASED ON THE NOVEL BY HERMAN MELVILLE. DIRECTED BY JOHN HUSTON. STARRING GREGORY PECK, RICHARD BASEHART, LEO GENN, HARRY ANDREWS, NOEL PURCELL, JOSEPH TOMELTY, FRIEDRICH VON LEDEBUR, IRIS TREE AND ORSON WELLES.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

‘From Hell’s heart I stab at thee…’

Written sometime in 1850 and including factual details picked up by the author whilst on a whaling voyage he undertook in 1841, MOBY DICK or THE WHALE is considered to be one of the greatest novels of all time, never mind just the greatest American one.

I have the book here beside me as I write this, although I must confess that I haven’t yet read it. This, despite the fact that the inscription on the fly-leaf reminds me that I bought it in 2009, lol. The problem is that the technical detail on the physical practice of whaling takes up a large part of the book and it’s probably that alone which has prevented me from reading it thus far.

I’d find such endless detail tiresome and even gruesome, given that it deals with the slaughter of the beautiful whales themselves. It’s upsetting even in the film to see the sailors harpooning these majestic beasts of the sea, but back then, I suppose they had no other way of acquiring the lamp oil to light up their homes and businesses. Where do they get it from nowadays? I haven’t got a Blue’s Clues…

The film, a cracking adventure movie the quality of which you’d be hard pushed to find the likes of today, tells the story of a personable young seafaring man called Ishmael. Ishmael has a longing to go on another sea voyage but, not only that, this time around he wants to learn the trade of whaling as well.

He fetches up in an American sea-port called New Bedford, where he asks Peter Coffin, the landlord of the local tavern, to put him up for the night. Oh sure, says the landlord genially, it’s no problem so long as you don’t mind sharing a bed. No bother, says Ishmael. Clearly this kind of thing wasn’t unusual back then. Nowadays, you’d be a bit put out, I daresay.

His bed-fellow is the most unusual person Ishmael has ever met. A so-called ‘cannibal’ from one of the islands where ‘savages’ live, Quee-queg, a chief in his own tribe, is six foot seven inches in height and tattooed all over his stern face and manly chest, kind of like the way a Maori might be but not exactly. Quee-queg has only limited English but it’s enough to get by, and he enjoys looking at sea-faring pictures in books.

After initially being scared half to death by the gigantic ‘cannibal’ with the harpoon and the shrunken heads in his luggage, Ishmael takes an immediate liking to the pipe-smoking, heathenish Quee-queg. ‘Better a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.’ The liking is mutual and the pair resolve to go whaling together on the same ship. Off they go down to the docks together for a look-see to suss out what’s on offer in the whaling line.

They end up on the PEQUOD, a whaling ship that has as its crew the same jolly lads with whom Ishmael danced and drank on his first night at Peter Coffin’s inn. Ishmael and Quee-queg sign up and go aboard, but not before an odd-looking fellow loitering on the docks tells them that their ship, in fact their entire voyage, is doomed. Just what you want to hear when you’re about to set sail, right? Right.

One day while they’re at sea, he tells the pair, they’ll smell land where there is no land. On that day, he continues ominously, the ship’s captain, Captain Ahab, will go to his watery grave but then he’ll rise again and beckon, and the entire crew, save one only, will follow him unto death. It’s enough to give you the shivers.

Cheerio then, he says, or as good as, and saunters off, leaving the two lads flummoxed. They don’t know what to make of this mad fella and his zany predictions at all at all. And what was the fella’s name, anyway? You might well ask. Elijah ring any bells with you guys…?

The mysterious Captain Ahab, who doesn’t show himself to his curious crew until the PEQUOD is well out to sea, is brilliantly played by Gregory Peck (TO KILL A MOCKING-BIRD, etc.). A huge white whale- Moby Dick- once upon a time tore off his left leg, for which he now has an ivory substitute, and scarred his face for life.

A normal person would just thank their lucky stars that they’re still alive, and try to adjust to their prosthetic limb as best they could. Captain Ahab is not a normal person, however. He’s as mad as a box of frogs. He’s on the hunt for the white whale, so that he can kill it and avenge himself for the lost leg and ruined face.

He’ll give a Spanish gold doubloon to the man who first spots Moby Dick. What’s more, he gets the crew all hyped up on grog and menacing threats of ‘Death to Moby Dick! Death to Moby Dick!’ He’s determined to infect the crew with his own afflictions. The very thought of Moby Dick is like a cancer in his soul. He’s really got it bad, this guy.

Out there on the ocean, in the blazing heat of the noonday sun, the men get all caught up in the Captain’s madness, much to the alarm of Mr. Starbuck. This is Captain Ahab’s second-in-command and the only sane person on board the PEQUOD. I don’t know what he’s so worried about. He can always fall back on the money from his family’s legendary chain of coffee shops if he loses his job on the ship.

Some of the scenes that follow are really gripping. There’s the lookout falling into the sea and the men not being able to find a trace of him. ‘It’s as if the sea just swallowed him up,’ says Laughing Stubb, Carefree Stubb, but Stubb (played by Harry Andrews from ICE COLD IN ALEX) ain’t laughing nor carefree no more. Not over this. It’s too eerie, too disturbing.

There’s Quee-queg seeing his own death in the bones that he throws, then giving away to Ishmael all his worldly possessions- ‘Money yours, harpoon yours.’- and commissioning the ship’s carpenter, played by Irish actor Noel Purcell, to build him a durable coffin. ‘No water get in.’ Little Pip chanting ‘Quee-queg gon’ away,’ little knowing who’s going to be accompanying Quee-queg on his journey into the unknown.

There’s Captain Ahab ‘catching St. Elmo’s Fire by the tail’ and Mr. Starbuck trying to interest some of the crew in a mutiny, as the ship is no longer being used for its original purpose of whaling, but solely to pursue Ahab’s crazy vendetta against Moby Dick. Sorry mate, that’s the Bounty you’ll be wanting, is what they should have answered Mr. Starbuck with…!

Have you ever seen that episode of THE SIMPSONS where Homer tries to avenge himself against the bear that humiliated him in front of the whole town and got him featured on the KENT’S COWARDS slot of the local Channel 6 News?

‘Dad,’ Lisa Simpson sagely comments, ‘if MOBY DICK has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t get revenge against an animal!’ Does Homer listen to his know-it-all daughter? Not so much. Well, on his own head be it, then, if he goes ahead with his bonkers scheme to bring Tubby Bear to a grisly/grizzly end. See what I did there?

The scenes of Moby Dick himself are simply magnificent. The white whale is enormous, the kind of thing you might see in your nightmares, a veritable ‘mountain of snow.’ (Good news for cocaine users, lol, a mountain of ‘snow’ that no-one can legally lay claim to and which is therefore there for the taking!) 

The film’s ending is one of the most memorable in cinema history, so I won’t spoil it for you. I think Elijah the Big Fat Blabbermouth so-called Prophet might have taken care of that already, lol. Nice one, Lije…

Orson Welles has an important four-minute cameo- yes, I timed it!- in the film as Father Mapple, the minister who gives a sermon  from the pulpit of his little church to all those heading out to sea. It’s a handy way of calling down God’s blessing on your little nautical endeavours. The pulpit is composed of the front bit of a ship, the bit where you have the masthead, and the minister has a rope ladder to get up and down by, just like in a ship. It’s beyond cool.

All over the church are memorials to the local men who lost their lives whaling. So many memorials. So many lost men. You’d wonder at Ishmael and his pals, rushing blithely off to do a job that’s so damned dangerous. They can’t all be trying to evade paying their child support. Or can they? You know what, 1850 or 2050, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

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