I watched the 1956 film version of Moby-Dick, the one directed by John Huston and was predictably and immediately disappointed. Not because I expected the movie to fail or wanted it to fail so as to leave me with the singular experience of the novel, unblemished or otherwise undistorted or untarnished in my imagination by the images on the screen. Concretization mostly being a disappointment when it comes especially to our most cherished images.
Huston’s amazing filmography of course speaks for itself. From The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen – all the Bogey classics – to later films like The Misfits and even Prizzi’s Honor his work is indisputably iconic and his legendary status legitimate. My brother the painter suggests, “Artistic failures are sometimes as interesting to me as successes.” Well, Huston’s attempt at visualizing Melville’s mega-myth is an unquestionable flop and that Gregory Peck himself pretty much disowned his performance is indicative of the across-the-board, categorical miscasting of the film. There’s not an actor in it that belongs in their role. And don’t get me started on the weirdly horrible choice for Queequeg.
Special effects? They’re beside the point in any great film and we all know (well, all of us except, apparently, CGI proponents) less is typically more in both quantity and quality. Implication. Suggestion. That’s all we need. A glimpse of the pale bulk slipping silently beneath the surface…. We’ll do the rest, thanks. That when we’re forced to suspend our disbelief and tap our imaginations, our own unconscious, we enable the creation of infinite internal horrors is a given. That said, the white whale in this movie is annoyingly incorrect in all things whale. The geysers and frothing and gushing and spouting – as if the beast is propelled by a hundred unhinged boat motors – to say nothing of the animal’s cartoony breaching scenes (a whale has to breathe, after all). An enormous sperm whale, we all intuitively understand I would hope, is not a limber, hyperathletic dolphin or even a springy killer whale. Spare us the hyperbole. Please. Run silent. Run deep. Try that. Gads. Funny ha-ha is not the intention – this isn’t a Godzilla movie and even Godzilla movies at their best (Gojira being the best) usually manage a significant mythological menace.
But back to the opening scene of the film versus the novel. The famous utterance, “Call me Ishmael.” In the novel it is declarative and affirmative: “Call me ISHMAEL.” As in, that’s my name. In the film it’s rather, “Call me… Ishmael?” As if our narrator just made it up on the spot and isn’t quite sure who he is or why he’s veritably skipping through the trees. Of course Ishmael, according to Melville at least, is indeed is a seeker and as such he’s a sufferer; full of doubt and frustration and angst and nagging ennui – “grim about the mouth” as Ishmael describes it – and a longing for, well, as he tells us: “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
But what does Huston subject us to but the jarring disappointment of a gutting of this great, mythic beginning. Instead of “watery part of the world” – veritably the best part of the image! – we’re offered the benign, bland, forgettable “oceans of the world.” Huh? NOT IN THE BOOK. What in hell was anybody on this film thinking? That, and meanwhile we have poor Ishmael-of-the-question-mark trundling a little too lightheartedly along through the incongruous woods – apparently in the film he walked from Manhattan to New Bedford, Massachusetts? And in temperate weather no less? Ishmael out hiking, otherwise enjoying the happy day. NOT IN THE BOOK. Melville rather utilizes the season and the inherent exile of the stranger-in-town to help propel us into psychological and existential peril immediately: “It was a Saturday night in December,” he tells us in Chapter II. And further along, “It was a very dubious-looking, nay, a very dark and dismal night, bitingly cold and cheerless.”
Whereas in Melville the metaphors all fit together and enhance each other – the outer and inner worlds are commingled to enhanced effect – in the film it’s as if Huston or Ray Bradbury (who supposedly was hired to write the screenplay when Huston himself is known to have been a legitimately competent screenwriter himself) straight away insisted upon dismantling the novel’s engagingly evocative mannerisms in favor of, I don’t know, foreshortening its vast emotional and psychological depths and distances. So as to get to the point quicker? To fit what may have been interpreted as a difficult, sprawling, unwieldy literariness into a two hour, otherwise more efficiently digestible film? I really don’t know. Oh, the film seems to say, we know the book is such a lot of mythic mumbo jumbo and what’s really important is that goddamn whale.
Ugh. One expects much more sophistication and literary acumen from Huston. If not exactly Bradbury who apparently claimed not to have been capable, for whatever reason, to finish reading the novel. Yikes. Bradbury another miscasting; the whole project, as I’ve said, appears riddled with them. Ishmael is too romantically handsome for an everyman seeker type. Orson Wells as Father Mapple is a tame, rigid, colorless disappointment. Starbuck as First Mate is too depreciated, too strangely urban, stuffy and, well, wimpy. Stubb, in the novel a native of Cape Cod, sports in the film an English accent (while also claiming Nantucket as his home). As for Peleg and Bildad, the Pequod’s executors, so to say, who are on board in port to outfit the ship and hire the hands, their roles are incongruously and maddeningly reversed in comparison to the book. And again, that Queequeg, a file-toothed, burly, dark skinned Polynesian of inscrutable provenance within Melville is played by Austro-Hungarian Friedrich von Ledebur defies all attempts at logic. So too, the discarding of the enchanting bond between Ishmael and Queequeg which guts the film of its humor, too.
Regarding Ahab, it was Peck, apparently, who suggested that Huston himself ought to have played the part. Which makes intuitive sense for an outwardly craggy and troubled image is a necessary aspect of the character. Peck’s ill-suitedness for Ahab helps describe the perfection of his performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (artistic failures are as interesting as successes). There, the man’s measured humanity and smoldering decency are the backbone of the film and make it arguably a more compelling experience than the book. And as sometimes happens an actor steals the character out from under the author. Think Alec Guinness, for lack of a better example, and his role as John le Carré’s George Smiley. Peck’s Ahab? From his cartoony, Abe Lincoln lookalike makeup and frankly fraudulent looking peg leg to his seemingly reluctant physicality, on again off again forcefulness and somehow dubious seaworthiness he seems to be acting in a different movie. It happens.
Melville’s Ahab is the physically and existentially wounded counterpart to the white whale himself – a phantom of life and the pale face of death that sounds the depths of our unconscious and the depths of the cosmos all at once with impossible, fearsome, horrible yet mysteriously accommodating natural presence. Melville’s Ahab also considers himself the equal, as a part of Mankind, to anything in the cosmos, on account of a kind of universal value bestowed upon each us and each thing entwined in the predicament of unknowing that we find ourselves. Ahab hates but not fiendishly or indiscriminately and not, as some other critics may suggest, to the extent of insanity. Hubris? Which is to say excessive pride or self-confidence? Not Ahab. He is a man who has reasoned his way into a heightened, self-aware existential battle, a cosmic one-on-one with the creator or Nature or whatever “unknown but still reasoning thing” that “puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” 
Mouldings? It is the mold, so to say, that the mask forms or impresses upon us and like all masks it entices us with what exists unseen behind it, with what the impressions imply of the truth, such as it may be. To Ahab, encountering reality or the truth of things as they really are – discovering the Wizard of OZ as a man behind the curtain, so to say – is an ascertainable thing. Ahab doesn’t seem to recognize, that is, any requirement for transcendence, any condition beyond that of Man, any transport from this world into an All or One or Deity. He rather seems to regard the cosmos, its mask as he sees it, as a challenge to his self-respect and, in the case of Moby-Dick, a taunting, humiliating mask behind which a First Mover type is laughing at him. And if there is nobody behind the curtain then the fact that a whale can insinuate itself into Ahab’s reason as an image of that insult, well, Ahab is driven to smash that image for its own sake. Where Jonah sought to escape God’s influence Ahab seeks to indeed tempt fate. “If man will strike, strike through the mask!”
How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creation. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.
Starbuck of course, symbolizes such natural law as may be perceived to exist in things, in humanity, in Nature, in the otherwise divine grace, such as it is, that binds the world into an intelligible whole. There is physical or at least Newtonian cause and effect and a reliably perceptible sense consequences: equanimity and goodness tends towards goodness, so-called evil or an opposition to virtue tends to engineer its own demise or at least forbids lasting reward and the idea of the Golden Rule as it is framed within Christianity – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – permeates the mythologies of all races, all beliefs, all contemplative traditions of merit. If none of this is certain, Starbuck at least affirms the original obligation of the ship; namely, that of hunting whales to accumulate the oil that, as he suggests, is intended to light men’s lamps at home. That Ahab feels justified in subverting the original mission which to Starbuck amounts to an agreement between man and Nature and legitimizes the whole enterprise in cosmic terms is the pain point that inspires Starbuck to accuse Ahab of blasphemy. Blasphemy against what? Or whom? If not Divine grace then blasphemy against the principle of purposeful shared endeavor, of humanity’s pact with the natural give and take nature of things. Late in the novel (but nowhere in the film), when the crew along with Ahab is out in their boats attempting to engage Moby-Dick firsthand, Starbuck perceives the whale as “only intent upon pursuing his own straight path in the sea.”
“Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”
Soon after, the unrelenting Ahab is snatched into oblivion – yanked by his neck from his post at the bow of his little vessel by a runaway rope hauled forth by the whale.
Rereading the book I was surprised to discover that all these years since first my first encounter with the story I’ve been mis-remembering the otherwise unforgettably horrible image of a sailor’s wrecked, drowned body inadvertently lashed to the side of the whale’s bulk. All this time I’d assumed it to be Ahab himself and the last scene before the Pequod’s sinking and Ishmael’s witnessing the Rachel sailing to his rescue as he clings to Queequeg’s casket. Which is weirdly enough exactly how the movie ends. Whale-as-retribution in all its gruesome, graphic finality. The whale wins. And the whole crew witnesses it. I looked at Dahm’s illustration one day, for example, and assumed he’d mistakenly forgotten Ahab’s peg leg. No. Dahm had it right. It is the carcass of the so-called Parsee who is miserably strapped to the whale.
Why not Ahab, then? Clearly it’s more memorable and galvanizing an image if Ahab is so permanently, ruthlessly bound even in death to the manifestation of his undoing still cruising the watery parts of the world. Did Melville perhaps sell himself short and Huston rather succeeds? I thought so but only until I imagined that Melville likely very much intended to render Ahab’s demise as an ineffable vanishing, a blink of cosmic whim, as if our determined, mad-hearted old Ahab were a mere trifle in comparison to the mighty and mightily indifferent whale. So that in Melville’s eyes Ahab never had a chance.
Effective literary imagery, then, proves itself immune to attempts at foreshortening, dramatizing or concretization. If Moby-Dick may indeed be described as a modern mega-myth then filmmakers perhaps understandably get caught up in communicating mythic grandeur, tripping over themselves as it were, tripping over their ambitions to craft a so-called epic. Myths, however, are little big things, as I like to refer to them. That is to say, in the example of Moby-Dick, it is a little tale with straightforward mythic themes – adventure, trial and return – rendered immense by way of its verily unavoidable appropriation of our inherently cinematic unconscious. Ishmael’s story is each of our stories. Likewise that of Ahab and Starbuck and Queequeg and Stubb and so on. Melville got it all exactly right. Moby Dick himself as the great white spermaceti? Well, read the book and try getting him out of your head.
 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, illustrated and published by Evan Dahm, 2017, Chapter XXXVI, 171.