Making the Grades
Director John Huston brought the seafaring epic, Moby Dick, to the big screen in 1956. Based on the classic novel by Herman Melville, this oceanic tale follows the troubled and ill-fated voyage of Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) and his hapless crew.
Looking for adventure, a young man named Ishmael (Richard Basehart) and a tattooed harpooner from the South Pacific (Friedrich von Ledebut) sign up as shipmates on the whaler Pequod. However on the day they are about to set sail under Captain Ahab and his first mate Starbuck (Leo Genn), the pair receives a prophetic warning from a scraggly-looking sailor on the Jeroboam. He predicts the untimely deaths of the captain and all the crew, save one—the one who will return to testify of the captain’s madness.
Compared to today’s action adventures, this story begins at a dawdling pace while introducing crewmembers and establishing Captain Ahab’s obsessive, unstable mental condition. The knots pick up when the fishermen encounter their first prey. Rowing alongside a whale, they repeatedly spear the beast until blood fills the rough waters surrounding the boats. Scenes that follow depict the whalers cutting up the fish and boiling down his blubber into oil.
But as the expedition continues, the sailors realize their commander isn’t interested in filling their hull with marketable whale parts. Starbuck pleads with the captain to listen to reason and even invokes the help of God in his efforts. But Ahab’s obsession with killing his nemesis, Moby Dick, becomes increasingly obvious. (The great white sperm whale took Ahab’s leg in an earlier encounter.) And though he tries, Starbuck isn’t able to bring himself to shoot the captain to stop him.
With stern resolve and no thought for this crew, the captain steers the ship toward the open ocean waters where the great creature was last seen.
Though outmoded uses of special effects date this film, the story includes strong performances, especially from Gregory Peck whose resume, among others, includes portrayals of a romantic hero in Roman Holiday, an idealistic lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird and a driven soldier in The Guns of Navarone. As well, Moby Dick addresses issues that are timely even today. Whether obsessed with revenge, the acquisition of something or any other singular objective, the relentless and unchecked pursuit of any one goal can be dangerous—to oneself and surrounding people.
While scenes of blood-filled waters and dying animals may be disturbing to young and sensitive viewers, this adaptation of Melville’s tragic story introduces audiences to life in a different era. It may also inspire eager readers to pick up a copy of the author’s well-known tome.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Moby Dick.
How does Captain Ahab’s desire for revenge blind him to reason? Why are the other sailors seemingly so willing to follow him, even to death?
Herman Melville was an American novelist born in New York City. Though his book Moby Dick has garnered great literary praise, the first 3,000 books printed did not sell out during the author’s lifetime.