The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Moby Dick

Just the name of certain books have the ability to send chills down the spines of high school and college students.  War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, Moby Dick, and any number of books from authors like Hemingway, Joyce, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, and many, many more.  They're classics and are recommended for a reason, but that doesn't always mean they are good.  Honors English in high school and advanced English/Literature/Composition sure proved that to me.  Want the easy way out?  I avoided it during my high school and college career, but how about watch the movie?  I've never read Herman Melville's source novel, but I'm "halfway" caught up having seen 1956's Moby Dick.

Melville's novel is a pretty good example of a book students are afraid to even go near.  For starters, it's a long book no matter what edition you pick up.  That's not necessarily a breaking point because long books can still be good books.  More importantly though, what style is it written in?  Is it period appropriate? Is it heavy on words and vocabulary readers won't understand without looking up?  I had that problem with director John Huston's movie version of Melville's novel.  A movie with some issues, but a fair share of positives too.  Bear in mind I'm reviewing the movie, not the novel as I jump in.

It's 1841 and a young sailor Ishmael (Richard Basehart) signs up on a whaler named the Pequod with hopes of experiencing and exploring the high seas and making some good money in the process.  Even having sailed before on previous non-whaling voyages, Ishmael isn't quite sure what to expect of the journey that awaits him, but the crew seems a likable enough group.  There's second-in-command Starbuck (Leo Genn), officer Stubb (Harry Andrews) and a multi-international crew with men from all over the world.  For days though, no one sees the captain on deck, a man known only as Ahab (Gregory Peck), a veteran of the sea. When he does reveal himself, he delivers a speech about the success the Pequod's crew is about to have, but he has other plans.  Above all else, he wants to kill a white sperm whale named Moby Dick, and nothing is going to stop him.

Reading the critical reviews of this 1956 version, one aspect of the movie seems to polarize critics more than anything else; the casting of Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab.  I was surprised to read these complaints because I thought Peck's performance was one of the better things about the movie.  The criticisms state that he was too young an actor to play one of literature's most notorious characters.  Ahab was an old, grizzled veteran of the sea, his leg bitten off by Moby Dick, and now he wants revenge.  His descent into madness, his obsession in killing Moby Dick worked in terms of character and story. Peck admitted later in his career it wasn't his best performance, stating there was too much prose from the novel in the film.  For me, that was a problem throughout the film.  Peck's performance? Not so much.

My biggest complaint of Huston's film was the feeling of being talked at, of being preached to.  Many scenes drag on as characters talk in a very proper Victorian sounding conversation.  These are whalers, not exactly upper class, high end sailors so they should talk naturally.  Instead, much of the conversation feels stilted and generally a little off, and there is a lot of it.  Early on, Orson Welles makes a cameo as a priest giving a sermon about Jonah and the whale (ooooohhh, foreboding!) that moves at a pace paint drying would be jealous of.  These long-winded conversations take away from the movie's pacing which is otherwise able to move along at a good rate.  Authentic to the book in terms of being true to the source, but maybe not so much commitment would have been better.

I'll be the first to say that I know little to nothing about whaling and its history.  Seeing the movie's depiction of whaling certainly gives you an appreciation of how dangerous the job actually was.  Men in small boats leave their bigger ships and chase after whales near the ocean's surface, then hurl harpoons and spears at the beast until they're dead.  These are the scenes I enjoyed most as Huston gives us a feel of what sea life had to be like.  Because for every hunt on the waters, there's time where the crew is bored to tears waiting for some action on-deck.  I don't know if it was the quality of TCM's print or how Huston filmed the movie, but a washed-out almost sepia coloring certainly adds to the doom and gloom of this horrific hunt.

For a movie that clocks in at just under 2 hours, one thing I realize looking back is how little actually happens until the end.  I don't know about the novel, but the pacing is all over the place.  Ahab is introduced by face until 30 minutes into the film, Moby Dick doesn't make an appearance until the last 30 minutes, and in the end it all feels rushed, especially the sea battle with this giant white sperm whale.  Behind Peck, the cast is all right, Basehart wasted as Ishmael because he's given little to do while Genn solid as Starbuck.  I liked the movie, but the more I thought about it, the more problems I had.  Still, it's worth a watch, if for nothing else than for you to decide what you think of Peck's performance.

Moby Dick <----trailer (1956): ** 1/2 /**** 

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