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To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee! - Captain Ahab
The story of a sea captain, obsessed with the white whale that took his leg, became an obsession in its own way for one of Hollywood's greatest directors. John Huston read Herman Melville's Moby Dick when he was sixteen and had dreamed of making a film of it as soon as he began directing The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Huston saw his father Walter Huston as the perfect Ahab and after John and his father received Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor respectively for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), a chance to make their big-budget adaptation became a reality. Then, in 1950, Walter suddenly died of an aneurysm and John was forced to find another Ahab.
Gregory Peck became Huston's new choice through a chance meeting at a Hollywood party. Peck was not sure he was right for the role, in fact, he always thought John Huston would have done a better job. However, Peck's box office draw delighted Warner Brothers who seconded Huston's choice. Still, some critics disliked Peck's performance, but the director always thought he conveyed the exact quality he wanted for the obsessed seaman. "Here was a man who shook his fist at God," is how Huston described Ahab.
To condense Melville's mammoth novel, Huston first turned to Anthony Veiller (The Stranger, 1946, The Killers, 1946). However, after a falling out with the screenwriter over his previous film Beat the Devil (1953), Huston turned to Ray Bradbury, a writer then known only for science-fiction books like The Martian Chronicles (1950). Bradbury had come to Huston's attention after sending fan letters to the director, begging for a chance to work with him. They were fan letters Bradbury probably came to regret as their collaboration became combative and ultimately provoked a lawsuit over screen credit. After Bradbury left, Roald Dahl and John Goldley made uncredited additions to the script.
The shoot was no calmer. A ninety-foot model of the great white whale was built for $30,000. A tug pulled it out into the Irish Sea and, after two shots were completed, the towline snapped and the whale quickly sank. A second whale was built on a barge but a storm also sank it without a trace. Finally a third whale was built and again the towline snapped. Huston had had enough. He climbed into the whale and shouted, "Lose this whale and you lose me!" He stayed aboard as two crew members swam under the whale, grabbed the line, and reconnected it.
That was not the end of the problems. Richard Basehart, who played Ishmael, broke his foot jumping into a whaleboat, Leo Genn, the Irish actor portraying first mate Starbuck, slipped a disc in his back and Gregory Peck not only injured his kneecap hobbling about on his peg leg, but was also nearly lost at sea and came close to drowning twice. Meanwhile the Irish Sea, doubling for the New England coast, suffered through one of its stormiest seasons ever.
Huston's quest for the perfect film of Moby Dick chewed up writers, cast and crew, strangely mirroring Ahab's own search. Perhaps it gave Huston a way of looking into the mad captain's soul. The result of all that pain and torment yielded the most accurate and probably the quintessential movie version of Melville's book. Other versions include a 1930 adaptation starring John Barrymore that works in an improbable romance between Ahab and a parson's daughter and a 1998 TV version featuring Patrick Stewart as the whale obsessed captain.
Producer: John Huston, Vaughan N. Dean
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Ray Bradbury, John Huston, based on the novel by Herman Melville
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Film Editing: Russell Lloyd
Art Direction: Ralph W. Brinton
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 (Ships Carpenter).
C-115m. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady