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DVD/Blu-ray: Moby Dick | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Moby Dick

DVD/Blu-ray: Moby Dick

John Huston's maritime epic is impressive but lacks metaphorical heft

Courtesy of Studiocanal

John Huston’s film of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) is a conundrum.

Despite below-par blue screen work, it’s a fantastic achievement in terms of re-creating the unequal combat of Captain Ahab's Crew vs. Great White Sperm Whale, especially the three-day chase with which the author, anticipating The French Connection and Jaws, brought his literary behemoth to a climax. Did they really not have CGI in 1956?

Gregory Peck’s Ahab is much better than the star himself thought: it has a Shakespearian resonance that suggests Peck wasn’t going to be outdone by Orson Welles (whose one-day of filming as Father Mapple paid for his stage production of Moby Dick). Peck made Pequod’s monomaniacal skipper as much the wrath of god as Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlane or Werner Herzog's Aguirre. Huston, always at his best directing men, revelled in his company of brawny, multi-ethnic hearties, including Friedrich von Ledebur’s Queequeg and Harry Andrews’s Stubb, even if Leo Genn under-played as the rationalist Starbuck and Richard Baseheart made the narrator Ishmael a non-entity. Oswald Morris’s muted Technicolor cinematography beautifully captured the storybook feel of 19th century whaling prints. The much-maligned artificial Leviathan, made by Dunlop, doesn’t look that rubbery at all.

Moby DickAnd yet Moby Dick is not a fantastic film, let alone a classic. Something was missing – namely, movie magic. It didn’t catch on when it was originally released and failed to recoup its budget. Attempting verisimilitude, Huston focused in the first third on the routines of life on a whaler, but the folksy maritime documentary ambience lingers too long. Poetry is absent, except for when someone trills a tune as the black cabin boy Pip (Tamba Allen) capers around the immobilized Queequeg when the Polynesian harpooner thinks he’s dying. Critically, Huston and co-writer Ray Bradbury (who famously fell out, as did Huston and Peck eventually) were unable to suggest any of the metaphors – the search for ultimate knowledge, for example – that make Melville’s novel seem multivalent. A shot of divine light flashing on Ahab and his men as a typhoon blows itself out offers the only metaphysical hint that the story is other than literal – the search for ultimate knowledge, perhaps.

Available as both a Blu-ray and as a DVD, Studiocanal’s disc of the handsomely restored film features an enjoyable interview with Angela Allen, now 90, who supervised the continuity of Moby Dick and 13 other Huston films. She describes the production’s mishaps (the model whale repeatedly fell off its tracks in a studio; the main seagoing one escaped its moorings); compliments Peck, who was “too nice” and showed up at the locations with no entourage, only his future wife Veronique Passani; and Huston’s calmness, egalitarian spirit, and willingness to take on board others’ suggestions. Her proudest moment, she says, was getting Huston to bring down actors from the tops of masts seconds before one of them was felled by high winds. Sadly, a featurette in which technician Greg Kimble describes how he restored the original desaturated color to Moby Dick is hurried and confusing.

The much-maligned artificial Leviathan, made by Dunlop, doesn’t look that rubbery at all

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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