MOBY DICK directed by John Huston (USA, 1956)

There’s is some dispute about screenwriter Ray Bradbury’s experience of Herman Melville’s epic novel. According to Wiki he confessed to John Huston that he’d never managed to get through the whole book, echoing the feelings of many readers, including me.

However, a strongly contradictory perspective is given by Philip Hoare. Writing in Leviathan, Hoare claims that Bradbury “read the book nine times and wrote fifteen hundred pages of script to reach a final one hundred and fifty”.

I suspect the truth may lie someway in between these two accounts. Huston is credited as co-writer and my gut feeling is that the director had a more intuitive grasp of the source material than the Sci-Fi author.

Either way, reducing the scope and complexity of the novel to a feature length film is a daunting and nigh on impossible task.

Radical short cuts are needed like a voiceover to give a who’s who of the crew or a tracking shot of tombstones in a church to tell us the history of those who had lost their lives in past whale hunts. The faces of the women watching as the Pequod sets sail is also a powerfully effective scene – a shot of a bearded old lady is priceless.

I was all set to laugh at some tacky special effects but they are actually quite impressive considering Huston didn’t have the technology at his disposal that Steven Spielberg or James Cameron have.

Friedrich von Ledebur as Queequeg.

The cast is a mixed bag. Orson Welles as Father Mapple makes a pretty good hellfire preacher and, I suspect, would have fared a little better than Gregory Peck in the role of Ahab. Peck was chosen as the star name to help the movie get sufficient financial backing but looks more like a pompous member of an Amish community than a crazed captain.

Richard Basehart is good as the naive and enthusiastic Ishmael but best of all is Friedrich von Ledebur as the radically tattooed Queequeg who manages to be both menacing and dignified.

The movie as a whole can be billed as a noble failure which shouldn’t detract from Huston’s otherwise exemplary record of bringing classic novels and short stories to the screen. His versions of Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, James Joyce’s The Dead and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood are examples of how great writing doesn’t automatically make for drab films.

In Moby Dick, the movie, Huston/Bradbury keep enough of Melville’s language to remind us that the novel is so much more than a boy’s own adventure story and, to their credit, they resist the temptation to tag on some crass happy ending.