Whales. Ya just can’t trust those ginormous leviathans of the deep. From Monstro in Pinocchio to Willy in Free Willy, whales have been seen as either monstrous beasts of the deep or fun creatures that must be freed from the barbaric theme parks from were they’re held as slaves. You decide.
It’s 1820 and author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) wants to write a novel about a murderous whale named Moby Dick, but the problem is he lacking a cool backstory. To get one, he decides to buy a story from the last sole survivor of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship from decades ago. Old and reclusive Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a man suffering from whaling PTSS, lives with his caring wife (Michelle Fairley) until Melville offers him a hefty cash sum for his personal account of what really happened aboard the ship. Thomas reluctantly agrees.
As Melville takes notes, Thomas spins the tale of two men, first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). There’s no love lost between these two as Chase, an experienced sailor and loved by all, is passed over for command by Pollard, whose daddy bought him the captaincy. The men all respect and listen to Chase, much to the ire of Pollard, who keeps trying to “play” captain and makes bad decisions. All this is seen through the eyes of young 14-year-old Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland), a first-time crew hand.
Things go very bad for these guys as whaling isn’t as plentiful this year as it should be. But a Spanish captain’s twisted tale of a crazed white whale protecting a massive school of whales sends Pollard and his crew straight into a trap. They find that bounty of whales all right, but a protective Godzilla-sized white-ish whale as well. The creature attacks and sinks the Essex, killing some and sending the rest into rowboats for an agonizing three months, lost at sea.
Old Thomas reveals to Melville the painful tragic secret he’s kept for over 50 years; the one that kept him and others alive until they were finally rescued. Melville writes his famous American novel that is, more or less, based on the conversation he had with Nickerson, who finally finds peace with himself.
Based on Nathanial Philbrick’s 2000 novel, this adapted screenplay by Charles Leavitt plays out like a condensed week-long mini-series. There’s so much story here that was probably worth reading about and seeing, but was chopped-up and reconfigured for a two hour movie. Result? It stops and starts with bouts of both excitement and tedium. The dialoge is pretty ordinary without any snap to it, almost like this were a History Channel documentary; Leavitt hasn’t written much except Blood Diamond in 2006 and the 2014 box office bomb, Seventh Son.
Then there’s director Ron Howard’s unique camera work on this project. Along with his usual sweeping style, he’s thrown in many bizarre up-close shots (macro-zoom) that are rather odd and strange. Sorta like J.J. Abrams’ cockamamie ‘lens-flare’s’ in his Star Trek movies. They’re there, but why? The acting, on the other hand, is great. Hemsworth (apart from his floating New England accent) is terrific, losing a ton of weight to appear starved. Solid performances from Cillian Murphy as Matthew Joy and Holland (the new Spider-man, btw) as well. The SPFX range from laughably bad green screen to truly realistic CGI whaling scenes.
There have been a few movies about the Dick, the elusive and psychopathic white whale that has severe anger-management issues, but this one is by far the very best. Ripped from Herman Melville’s best selling novel, this black and white masterpiece shows how films were constructed back in the 50’s, not just churned out to make a buck or two.
Let’s start off with the masterful direction of John Huston, who’s career set the standard not only as a film director, but as a powerful actor as well. The adaptive screenplay was done by Huston and prolific sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury. Add to this match made in Heaven a cast that included the fantastic (and drunk) Orson Welles, Gregory Peck at his peak, Richard Basehart, and Harry Andrews. Finish up with a driving and creepy atmospheric musical score by Phillip Saiton, and you just could not go wrong.
“Call me Ishmael” opens the movie narration (like the book) with Ishmael (Basehart) looking for a ship to call home. He meets, under curious circumstances, the enigmatic and scary Queegqueg (Freidrich Von Ledebur), a hard-core towering tattooed islander that takes whaling very seriously. They become best buds when they join the crew of the Pequod, the ship that is lorded over by the peg-legged and whale-obsessed Captain Ahab (Peck). After a brief church sermon by Father Mapple (Welles), the crew is off to kill whales, but they’ll never see home again.
Ahab regains the crew his OCD stories of finding the one whale that killed his last crew and nearly him: Moby Dick, the white whale! Ishmael gets worried that maybe be signed on the wrong ship, especially after Queegqueg “sees” his own death and orders a coffin be made for him. Ahab gets crazier as the trip progresses, even avoiding a rescue mission requested by a fellow captains heart-breaking plea. Dick is out there and Ahab wants it! His prayers are soon answered as the humongous beast is seen and then attacks the ship, killing Ahab as he rides the whale like a madman, stabbing at him with a harpoon, and screaming out great dialogue. Whoa!
The whale leaves, the crew is all dead, except for Ishmael, who lives to tell the tale of his adventures and write a book about it. Oddly enough, Peck wasn’t happy about his bravura performance here and initially wanted director Huston to play the role, not him. Peck got a chance to play Father Mapple in the lousy 1998 miniseries with Patrick Stewart as Ahab. And yes, Welles was in fact drunk when they shot his sermon scene, something that was sorta recreated again in Jaws, when Robert Shaw was hammered when he gave that brilliant monologue about the USS Indianapolis.
Even though you have a killer screenplay, Huston and Bradbury hated each other and fought over the script. Bradbury came away with such disgust and anger, that he wrote the novel, Green Shadows, White Whale, a fictionalized version of what happened on the set, and the short story “Banshee“, another fictionalized account which made it to TV’s The Ray Bradbury Theater. You can see that episode on YouTube.
Despite all this ruckus, this film excels. Even the whale (a large scale rubber puppet) is impressive looking and mighty frightening for a 1950’s film that had no CGI or green screen. Gutsy actors, a real sailing ship, Ishmael’s eerie narration of the voyage, and Peck’s signature role (outside of his Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird). Call me Satisfied.