(director/writer: John Huston; screenwriters: based on the novel by Herman Melville/Ray Bradbury/Roald Dahl and John Goldley uncredited; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: Russell Lloyd; music: Philip Sainton; cast: Gregory Peck (Captain Ahab), Richard Basehart (Ishmael), Leo Genn (Starbuck), James Robertson Justice (Captain Boomer), Harry Andrews (Stubb), Bernard Miles (The Manxman), Noel Purcell (Ship’s Carpenter), Joseph Tomelty (Peter Coffin), Tamba Allenby (Pip), Royal Dano (‘Elijah’); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: John Huston/Vaughan N. Dean; MGM Home Entertainment; 1956-UK)

“Huston uses his great filmmaking skills to keep things mostly on course.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Huston (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”/”The Roots of Heaven”/”Moulin Rouge”) directs a mostly faithful adaptation to the novel by Herman Melville (the 1930 version added unnecessary subplots and obscured many of Melville’s themes); it’s co-written by Huston and Ray Bradbury, who were combative and had a fight before the film was finished causing Huston to hire Roald Dahl and John Goldley to help him finish writing the screenplay and to somehow chop things down to a manageable size while still retaining the essence from the 600+ page novel; it surprisingly resulted in a screenplay that turned out to be intelligently written despite all the problems to get it down on paper. But it’s almost ruined by central miscasting: Gregory Peck makes for a gimpy Ahab (too much of a gentleman to convince us he’s this roughhouse pegleg seaman with an obsessive burning rage inside him and too stiff to be someone bold enough to have “shook his fist at God”), while the Irish actor Leo Genn doesn’t have enough caffeine in him to make for a lively first mate Starbuck. Yet Huston uses his great film-making skills to keep things mostly on course by offering a number of brazen sequences that can knock you over with their magical force (check out that Orson Welles turn as a New Bedford pastor delivering a forceful Jonah sermon to his mostly seamen congregation before they go to sea). This version, subbing the New England coast with the Irish Sea (shot mostly in Ireland), comes somewhat close to what Melville was gunning for in his complex metaphorical classic (which many consider to be one of the greatest novels created by an American). Overall, despite some objections as to what was left out, it’s more often gripping than not and the scenic shots at sea are stunning (credited to second-unit cameraman Freddie Young).

In 1841, a solo wandering merchant sailor professing a love for the sea to cure his restless nature appears over the brow of a hill in New Bedford and tells us to ‘Call me…Ishmael’ (Richard Basehart). At the Spouter Inn, the young man receives in a colorful way his initiation into the whaling community and takes a room at the tavern after agreeing to share a room with the cannibal facially tattooed native harpooner Queequeg (Frederick Ledebur). The next day the two friends sign on with the whaling ship the Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck), who lost his leg to the giant white whale Moby Dick and is obsessed with hunting the monster whale. The crew eventually catches Ahab’s bloodlust to get the white whale, which means not hunting for other whales or even helping another Captain search for his lost son and, perhaps, more importantly losing track of their own values.

Huston’s fiery father Walter Huston was set to play the part of Ahab if his son ever directed Moby Dick, but he passed away in 1950. I think he would have been a great madman Ahab and given it more of a lift than only the adequate performance by Peck. Also bringing the film down a few notches is that some of Melville’s biblical references are removed, as the film gives way some of its literary ambitions and becomes instead more winsome as an exciting chase adventure film than anything else. If you want to catch more of Melville’s drift than the film was able to convey I suggest reading the novel or, second best, the poet and Melville scholar Charles Olson’s provocative essays on Melville.