I have a back file of reader notes asking for a Blu-ray for John Huston’s Moby Dick, and more pointedly, wondering what will be done with its strange color scheme. I wasn’t expecting miracles, but this new Twilight Time disc should make the purists happy – it has approximated the film’s original, heavily muted color scheme.
1956 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 116 min. / Street Date November 15, 2016 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn, James Robertson Justice,
Harry Andrews, Orson Welles, Bernard Miles, Mervyn Johns, Noel Purcell, Frederick Ledebur
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Art Direction Ralph W. Brinton
Film Editor Russell Lloyd
Original Music Philip Sainton
Writing credits Ray Bradbury and John Huston
Produced and Directed by John Huston
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Talk about a picture with a renewed reputation… in its day John Huston’s Moby Dick was not considered a success, artistically or commercially. Reviewers seemed incensed that Huston would dare touch Herman Melville’s famous novel, and they thought Gregory Peck’s Ahab was lacking in impact. Warner Bros. had adapted the novel once before as an early talkie, a version remembered mostly as a joke. It altered the story to have Ahab bring his sweetheart along on the voyage to hunt the white whale. Finally presented in its proper screen ratio and restored to its odd color scheme, Huston’s film can now be appreciated for its many achievements — a poetic script, marvelous performances (including the lead), and excellent special effects.
Shorn of some of its philosophical chapters, Herman Melville’s novel still yields a haunting, poetic story. Restless landlubber Ishmael (Richard Basehart) signs on to go a-whaling with a native harpooner named Queequeg (Frederick Ledebur), only to land on the Pequod, a ship commanded by the obsessed Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck). The crew goes through a period of confusion, but is finally seduced by Ahab’s bloodlust for the rogue monster whale, Moby Dick, that ripped off his leg and ‘tore his body and soul asunder.’ Ignoring the business of hunting whales, and even rejecting the pleas of another Captain to help in a search for his lost son, Ahab drives the crew of the Pequod into a suicidal fury.
Maverick director John Huston could have been called a director/gambler hyphenate, as he had a habit of living on the edge of bankruptcy while drawing high pay from his prolific Hollywood work. Moby Dick is a Moulin Production, perhaps made with European profits from his earlier success Moulin Rouge. The ‘fifties marked Huston’s first attempt to establish himself in Ireland, a base from which he would continue to make big-budgeted films for the major studios. The success of The African Queen and Moulin enabled the director to film more personal projects, like The Roots of Heaven for Fox and Darryl Zanuck. The director continued a steady stream of interesting work through the 1950s.
To adapt the book Huston turned to the noted science fantasy writer Ray Bradbury, a wordsmith who invariably found a poetic way out of any literary corner. Bradbury frequently made public appearances to talk about his life and times. I remember him speaking at our High School way out in San Bernardino in 1968, and I went with my kids to see him at my daughter’s High School in 1997. Braddbury’s account of how he proposed ‘organic’ visual miracles for Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings made for great listening. On Moby, Ray liked to joke that the book’s actual plot comprised about three chapters out of fifty — the rest were taken up with essays on whaling, and of course Melville’s moral-spiritual arguments. Savant actually broke down and read the book after MGM’s fairly nice laserdisc came out in 1996. It’s fascinating, a great read. One wild chapter arguing the moral distinction between a ‘loose fish’ and a ‘fast fish’ is so enjoyable that I go back and read every once and a while, just to refresh my memory.
Bradbury stuck faithfully to Melville’s story and brought out and enlarged the characters. Richard Baseheart’s Ishmael remains something of a genial cipher, and provides an advent into the world of whaling. We identify strongly with the character, and Basehart’s reactions to his fellow shipmates are always rewarding. We’re given colorful, credible portraits of sailing men. Harry Andrews’ second mate is a totally believable jolly salt; Noel Purcell’s is the somber carpenter, and Mervyn Johns is a clever bible-toting shipping clerk. Orson Welles’ Jehovah-like preacher sends the whalers out with a beautifully spoken sermon.
Best of all is the great Frederick Ledebur (The Roots of Heaven, The 27th Day, Slaughterhouse-Five) as the ritually-scarred Queequeg, a ‘cannibal prince’ who follows heathen superstitions but whose skill with a harpoon makes him welcome in Puritan New Bedford. It’s interesting that Melville made his three harpooners primitives from three different continents — an African, an American Indian, and an East Indian headhunter. I like that Huston sees no need to embellish the story with a cute dog or a sidekick cook with funny mannerisms. For some reason I think here of the 2005 King Kong remake. It’s bloated with irrelevant ‘human interest’ relationships among the crew, one of whom favors us with lame references to Joseph Conrad. No, the officers and crew of the Pequod are completely caught up in the business of the hour.
Given a role even bigger than Richard Basehart’s is actor Leo Genn, whose First Mate Starbuck must carry much of the story’s moral conflict. The devout Starbuck is the only one to recognize that Ahab is a dangerous madman. He sees Ahab’s quest as going against the ship’s mission, and also defying the will of God — making Moby Dick into something Evil rather than a part of God’s Creation. Starbuck suffers alone: if his fellow officers won’t join him in mutiny, should he take matters in hand and stop Ahab with force? Starbuck is an anchor of reason and courage yet lacks the power to steer events away from disaster. The most ironic moment in the movie occurs when, inheriting Ahab’s authority, Starbuck exhorts the ship’s company to continue doing what he’s been agonizing against for a full hour. Man and morals form a real paradox.
Gregory Peck has been much maligned as being too stiff in the leading role. This Ahab simmers in silence most of the time, but Peck shows us that he’s boiling inside. Peck’s persona as the ‘handsome, decent guy with the deep voice’ worked against audience acceptance at a time when movie stars weren’t encouraged to stretch their range in big films. Critic Andrew Sarris attacked the film (and Huston) in print for not having a ‘big’ Ahab with a big performer in the role. Laurence Olivier? Sarris suggested that Peck and Welles swap parts, but I’m not so sure that would serve the film well. Huston was trying to make a Melville movie, not an actor’s theatrical showcase.
One bold script change shifts the appearance of a seer named Elijah (Royal Dano) earlier in the narrative, to foretell the conflict to come. Elijah accosts Ishmael and Queequeg on the dock, to lay a Shakespearian curse on the ‘damned’ Pequod. His prediction of ‘seeing land where there ain’t no land’, and the dead Ahab returning from a watery grave to beckon all to follow him, lends the tale a supernatural edge. Actor Royal Dano was indeed something of a ghost with John Huston — viewers that saw Dano’s scenes as a weary soldier in the long cut of The Red Badge of Courage proclaimed him an instant Oscar nominee. But Louis B. Mayer didn’t like the film, cut it to pieces and reduced Dano’s scenes almost to nothing. Hollywood directors from Anthony Mann to Philip Kaufman tried to make it up to the actor in subsequent films. Royal Dano’s scene is a real showstopper. It lets us know that we’re heading out on more than just a dangerous voyage.
Highly realistic in its scenes of sailing and whaling, Moby Dick plays out like a ghost story, or a Greek myth animated by vengeance, grave oaths, and Ahab’s diabolical pact with his own crew. A gold ounce (an Ecuadorian coin!) nailed to the masthead becomes a visual talisman. In a scene worthy of Homer, a gale strips the sails from their riggings while Ahab tames the ‘green lightning’ with his force of will. The superstitious crew becomes charged with Ahab’s personal obsession. He sells them on his mania with rum and promises of greatness. What is a great leader, except a man who can induce large numbers of men to blindly follow him on a mad quest?
Moby Dick was filmed in Ireland and off Portugal, and a lot of it was actually shot at sea. As we’ve learned from Spielberg’s trials with Jaws, trying to do dialogue scenes on a bobbing boat on a real sea can be a frustrating experience, what with the light and the ocean changing constantly. If you want to show a horizon, other boats are going to ruin sightlines. Moby Dick has just enough of this kind of footage to give it the feeling of ‘being there.’ There is a lot of process work of one kind or another. But Huston sticks to essentials. The cutting repeatedly features shots of massed seagulls. Are they there because they represent madness, or because they’re needed as cutaways between special effect model shots? Huston is careful not to lose the human element. Back in port, he orchestrates a terrific group of weathered faces at church and on the dock, bidding the Pequod farewell. Huston’s excellent montages of the work of whaling on deck are backed by great music from Philip Sainton.
The special effects are actually pretty amazing, with large-scale tank work using fine miniatures and an impressively articulated model of a whale. Accounts from the time say that a full-scale mechanical swimming whale was constructed for a couple of days at sea. But it then sank like a rock, sending the production company back to the drawing board. Even if Moby Dick’s jaw seems a bit mechanical at times, the film’s effects are spectacular. The views of the whale breaching in the mist and attacking the Pequod work for me, especially with that great music behind it.
What we now most note about Huston’s film is the powerful spell of its poetic dialogue. Starbuck’s musings as he considers committing murder are riveting; so are poor Ishmael’s pleas to Queequeg, that can’t divert the giant man from a fatal decision. Orson Welles has a nigh-perfect scene delivering a sermon from a pulpit shaped like the fore of a ship; transformed by his makeup, Welles delivers not fire and brimstone, but a warm call for justice. The underrated Richard Basehart reads the narration with grace and power — it’s articulate but never simply high-toned. Ray Bradbury always gets full credit, but we’re told that writer Norman Corwin contributed to the screenplay as well.
When Moby, or nature, or God strikes back against Ahab’s hubris, the film becomes a true disaster movie. “All Will Follow” translates to men taking a suicidal course of action. Hunting the whale for the wrong reasons is seen as a sin against an orderly universe. Melville’s sea monster takes great pleasure in revenging itself against humankind. The key to the book is here – the problem of defining moral responsibility in an existence split between Man, God and Nature.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Moby Dick is a special disc that should make cinema fans happy — even if some viewers ask where the color went. John Huston and Oswald Morris had previously succeeded with a major color experiment in Moulin Rouge, replicating the defocused and sometimes overexposed bright hues of Toulouse Lautrec. Apparently they enjoyed forcing Technicolor’s lab people to indulge their experimentation, for on Moby Dick they decided to make the film look like old early American whaling illustrations. The inked, water-colored sketches often had grayed, subdued colors, as if the Puritan ethic didn’t approve of sensual hues. Technicolor achieved some of the effect by overprinting a fourth B&W pass, to further mute the color. That means that no printing element contains the colors achieved in original Technicolor release prints from 1956. To make subsequent TV copies and videotapes, the technical people have tried in vain to pull normal color out of the negative that Morris carefully degraded to yield the archaic effect. Moby Dick has looked pretty grim ever since.
The last studio transfer for this show was done in 2003 at MGM. Another may have been done later at Sony. Twilight Time took the initiative and revised an existing HD transfer in an attempt to recreate the original color scheme. A restoration extra on the disc called A Bleached Whaleshows that Greg Kimble referenced original Technicolor prints at the Library of Congress to see what the 1956 release really looked like. The extra gives us before-and-after comparisons that show his corrections. Kimble mostly takes color out of the images, making them look more grayed. Some of the night shots are basically monochromatic, with a slightly silvery sheen.
Even though the title cards are set against old whaling illustrations, I’m doubtful that the average viewer would make the artistic connection intended by the filmmakers. Also, I’m not convinced that the muted colors transport us into a different space. Things just look dull, as if an old movie had faded in a very strange way. I can see a viewer likening the image to a dusty book. Psychologically, the effect might even be soporific — not enjoying majestic ocean visuals doesn’t redirect our attention to the film’s moral lessons. *
But for us John Huston fans it’s terrific that Twilight Time has gone to this trouble. Their version of the film is an exclusive, so it looks different than what is being shown on the MGMHD cable channel. It is cleaner than older transfers. The digital pass makes some shots look de-grained, while others (as when Moby Dick strikes the ship) are even more grainy. The audio is also improved from earlier discs, which showed a slight distortion in some scenes, especially on the music track. We can still hear it, but it is minimized. I believe that Moby Dick is one of many United Artists- held features that suffered when a vault of film ‘extras’ was thrown away 25 years ago. The vault might have contained better music masters to replace the tracks on many old or damaged audio composites for UA pictures.
A commentary shows Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Paul Seydor to be just as impressed with Huston’s film as am I. They talk about the fine music score by Philip Sainton. It fulfills the action requirements, and backs up the film’s sad verbal poetry with a plaintive half-melody. It is the only film score of classical composer Sainton’s. The novel is discussed at length — Seydor was a professor of literature.
The color issue is discussed in depth as well. They don’t blame MGM for the lack of a full restoration on Moby Dick, as does Robert Harris online. I agree with Harris that that the current regime at MGM doesn’t spend what it should on restoration and protecting the library. We do wish they’d do at least some elective re-mastering of deserving titles. But they shouldn’t be blamed for transfers made before they took over, or bad dupe elements made decades ago.
A trailer and galleries of ad art are included, a nice touch. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes reinforce the need to reassess Moby Dick as a great picture. It may not be a feel-good audience movie, but I think it achieves something special, walking a fine line between realism and poetic fantasy.
* Perhaps Huston should have saved the ink-and-watercolor effect only for certain scenes. If a dockside scene, or a scene with a ship under sail faded up looking like this, we might think, ‘oh, this looks like a picture in a museum.’ Then the natural colors could sneak back in. Viewers notice contrasts like that — when the film’s look changes, the audience would have to ask itself why, rather than conclude that they are looking at a bum print.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Moby Dick Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, commentary with Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman; A Bleached Whale: Recreating the Unique Color of Moby Dick, Posters, Lobby Cards & Production Stills, Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 15, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson