A young seaman recounts the tale of his first voyage, with the dreaded peg-legged Captain Ahab whose obsessive search for the white whale Moby Dick, who took his limb, will reap disaster.
What brave soul would ever attempt to adapt this treasure, widely considered the Great American Novel, rippling with subtext and laborious with detail? Why John Huston, of course, that erstwhile Ahab of American directing. Sadly, it proves even beyond his grand designs, and the voluminous tide of Herman Melville’s great, creaking ship of a book are reduced to a colourful odyssey of man striving against the forces of nature in the shape of a white whale. Casting Gregory Peck as the immortal Ahab was a brave decision, but one so synonymous with the genteel humanity of Atticus Finch could never truly ferment the venom of this crusading vision of blind obsession. It’s a good effort, but he embodies the film’s weakness, always a shadow of something far greater.
Filleted from the 600 pages by sci-fi author Ray Bradbury and Huston himself, the script does, at least, keep the first person narrative — Richard Basehart plays the callow youth through whose eyes we look, and gets to spout the most famous opening line in literary history: “Call me Ishmael.” He, for those who have read the book (or pretended to) will hook up with enigmatic harpoonist Queequeg (Frederick Ledebur), who will play guardian as they set sail on the legendary whaler The Pequod. Meanwhile, Huston works hard to invest what is fast becoming a sturdy enough adventure tale with some of the book’s religious foreboding and grand metaphors (Moby Dick is America!). A booming Orson Welles turns up for a cameo as a mordant preacher seeing the men off to battle with the ocean, and many of Ahab’s Biblical cant is kept intact from the novel. But the authenticity of the seafaring and the magnificent modelwork finally diminish any opportunity for greater meaning. The film takes flight as a grand chase movie, and leaves its ambition in its wake.
Who could ever buy Atticus Finch as the demonic Ahab driven by hellfire to hunt down that dreaded white whale?