The sole survivor of a lost whaling ship relates the tale of his captain's self-destructive obsession to hunt the white whale, Moby Dick.
"Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me."
Very rarely is a film considered a genuine classic upon its initial release. Often times, a period of time and reflection is required for audiences to evaluate a particular work and decide whether or not it's deserving of the prestigious moniker "classic." When John Huston's 1956 adaptation of the Herman Melville's seminal novel 'Moby Dick' reached screens, it was met by lukewarm-to-negative reviews. Some critics knocked the performances as well as the inconsistent age of lead star Gregory Peck and his literary counterpart Captain Ahab. While the then 38-year-old actor may have been a bit too young for the part, 60 years this film's release it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing the revenge-driven mad captain of the Pequod.
His name was Ishmael (Richard Basehart). As a young man with an adventurer's spirit, Ishmael has a desire to see the world. After crewing on a couple of merchant ships, he's got it in his mind to crew up on a whaling vessel and be a part of the thriving industry. After falling in with the crew of the Pequod as they celebrate their last night in port, Ishmael can't help but soak in the excitement. Even after being roomed with the head-hunting native Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur), Ishmael's excitement only grows. Even when he hears the stories of the scarred and crippled Captain Ahab, Ishmael only becomes more excited at the idea of a grand adventure.
For days after leaving port, Ishmael, Queequeg, the boisterous Stubb (Harry Andrews), and Second Mate Starbuck (Leo Genn) don't see their captain. They hear him at night pacing the deck with his ivory leg thumping on the boards, but they never see him. They toil to move the ship out to sea and only when they are past the point of no return does Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) emerge to address his crew. What was supposed to be a simple and fairly routine whaling voyage is actually a mission of revenge. Ahab want's Moby Dick, the white whale that took his leg and scarred his face. As he blinds the crew with promises of riches and Spanish gold coins, Ahab's obsession for vengeance puts everyone's life at risk when the white whale breaches the seas.
Like any number of kids in high school, I had to read Melville's classic literary adventure. I remember some of my classmates getting bogged down by the terminology, the lack of punctuation, and the long passages relating to the details of whaling. While certain segments of the book were near-incomprehensible, I loved the sense of adventure the story had and it's very relevant life lessons about revenge and not hitching yourself to someone else's obsessions. As a 'Star Trek' fan, I was also happy to finally get all of the references from 'Wrath of Khan' and 'First Contact.' When we finally finished the book, our teacher fired up this film adaptation. I've never felt that it was the most faithful of book-to-screen adaptations ever made, but it captured the spirit and the heart of the key characters and Peck was perfect as the iconic Ahab.
Looking back on the film now, I'm able to see that it really was a labor of love. John Huston worked for years to get this film made. Initially, he intended to cast his father Walter as Ahab, but the senior Huston passed away before filming could begin. Then he tried to get Orson Welles on board, but Welles decided to take the smaller, but no less interesting role of the Father Mapple to deal with a period of stage fright he was enduring. Without Welles, Huston was ordered to hire a bankable actor - namely Gregory Peck. Peck, who was too young for the part of Ahab by about 30 years. In 1956, the critics and even Peck himself felt he was too young and miscast for the central character. 60 years later, can you picture anyone else but Peck in the lead role? Sure, Patrick Stewart and William Hurt have come around to toss a harpoon at the character Ahab, but their volleys had a high target to shoot at. While Stewart and Hurt are both great, they don't capture Ahab's insane drive in the same way that Peck manages with a simple glance.
As for the rest of the cast and crew, Basehart manages a fine Ishmael, even if he may have been too old for the part as he was older than both Gregory Peck and Orson Welles. Ishmael is the outside observer, the man recounting the tale of Ahab's disastrous quest for vengeance. Due to time limitations, the film goes long stretches without pulling Ishmael into the story. To all credit, I have to tip my hat to Huston for being able to bring as much of the story to the screen as he was able to without the film becoming a four-hour long slog. Added to Richard Basehart, I was always impressed with Friedrich von Ledebur as the native Queequeg. Sure, the Austrian-Hungarian actor is far and away from being a genuine South Pacific islander, but the actor plays the man with a true heart and without devolving into some sort of overblown stereotype making.
With the unique look of the film (which I'll speak more of in the transfer section), a great cast, and an energetic pace set by Director John Huston, 'Moby Dick' is a classic film. It may not have lit up the screens upon its initial release, but like so many other films that have been deemed "classics," 'Moby Dick' requires reevaluation. If you're already a fan of the film, you're already well aware of the impressive merits of the film. If you haven't seen 'Moby Dick' since high school or for a number of years, it's a long time past due for you to take another look at this film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Moby Dick' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time. Pressed onto a Region Free BD50 disc, the disc comes housed in a clear sturdy Blu-ray case. Also included is a booklet containing stills and an essay by Film Historian Julie Kirgo. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
If you've only ever seen this film on home video, you may have some errant preconceptions about how the film is supposed to look. That said, when you take into account how it was presented theatrically, you'll quickly understand that 'Moby Dick' hasn't looked as it should have since it was first issued on home video. For the first time on any home video format, 'Moby Dick' arrives with a properly desaturated 1080p 1.66:1 transfer that replicates the appearance of the original Technicolor theatrical prints. Before anyone starts decrying the lack of color or the saturation levels and the lack of primary pop, understand this is entirely by design as the film was originally intended by Director John Huston and his Director of Photography Oswald Morris. Their goal was to have the film look like old 18th-century whaling prints. There is even a credit at the opening given as "Color Style Created By" given to Oswald Morris and John Huston. To that end, I enjoy the look of this presentation immensely as it fits the tone and mood of the story. The previous home video releases always appeared too bright and colorful for such a dark tale of revenge. On top of restoring the proper color of the film, it's apparent that a lot of work went into restoring the image as numerous instances of debris and scratches have been removed. Throughout, there is a notable amount of film grain allowing for some decent close up and middle range detail levels to the surface. Some sequences due to baked in focus issues as well as the climatic scene have always looked a bit soft, but nothing too terrible for a film of this vintage. All around this is a beautifully ugly presentation that fits the tone of the story perfectly and finally replicates John Huston's intentions for the film.
'Moby Dick' is presented with a clear and effective English DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono audio track. Considering the action sequences and the number of scenes shot on the open ocean, this mix is very impressive. There is a constant sense of atmosphere and dimension as the waves crash around the ship, the men shout their orders, and the beautiful adventure score from Phillip Sainton fills each scene. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout as each actor is clearly heard while Richard Basehart's narration sets up a number of scenes. Imaging while limited to the mono limitations does offer up an impressive sense of movement. All of the key elements are beautifully layered to deliver a fantastic audio presentation without any distortion. Free of any age-related issues, this is a near-flawless audio mix.
Audio Commentary: Film Historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman offer up an entertaining and interesting commentary track. It's clear that these three are fans of the film as they provide plenty of historical information about the production but can't help themselves from gushing over their favorite moments.
A Bleached Whale: (HD 5:41) This is a fascinating if too short look at what went into recreating the intending look of the film. Greg Kimble narrates the 8-month restoration effort to not only clean up mold and damage and realign the duplicate negative elements, but also the process of using archival Technicolor prints as a guide for the proper color timing.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 3:13)
'Moby Dick,' the white whale of classic film releases finally comes home to Blu-ray with the recreated coloring as it was always intended to be viewed. The film is a grand adventure film with an ever-poignant message about obsession. It may not have been received well by critics during its initial release, but time has done this film a favor as it features a grand scale and wonderful performances and direction. Twilight Time gives this film the justified treatment it's long deserved with a freshly restored image transfer, a wonderful audio mix, and some interesting supplementary material. There's not much left to say other than to call this release of 'Moby Dick' highly recommended.