Some Thoughts on the 60th Anniversary of John Huston's Moby Dick
This year was a welcomed anniversary for many films. James Cameron’s Aliens turned thirty. Taxi Driver and Rocky turned forty. The Coen Brothers took the mainstream spotlight twenty years ago with Fargo, and this year they released Hail Cesar. 1966 saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, still strong fifty years later. What about 1956?
In 1956, DeMille rocked the Hollywood landscape with The Ten Commandments, and Elvis Presley’s first film, Love Me Tender, was released. The Oscar for best film that year would go to Michael Anderson’s Around the World in 80 Days, and John Ford’s iconic Western The Searchers hit the silver screen. Summer of 2016, however, marked the sixtieth anniversary of another film that is worthy of some consideration. Although Moby Dick may not be the strongest entry in John Huston’s oeuvre—greatly overshadowed by Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Asphalt Jungle, and The Maltese Falcon—his adaptation of Melville’s classic is worthy of a second look for several reasons.
For one, the second half of Spielberg’s Jaws is the 70’s answer to Huston’s film. This becomes apparent when one considers Quint (Robert Shaw) as a throwback to Gregory Peck's Captain Ahab character. According to Jaws lore, Quint's original introduction was to be set in a movie theater in a scene strikingly similar to a familiar scene from Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991): the shark hunter was to be watching the finale of Huston's Moby Dick, the final showdown between Ahab and the White Whale, while obnoxiously filling the cinema with cigar smoke and laughing so maniacally that the other moviegoers are forced to leave. The story is outlined by Spielberg in the "making of" features on the DVD, and what's also fascinating is that, as the story goes, Gregory Peck opposed this idea when it was presented to him, stating that he was embarrassed by the performance and didn't want others to see it. I've always found this story interesting because clearly Spielberg was taken with Huston's film and Peck's performance enough to pay tribute to it. What's even more interesting is that when Moby Dick's re-released, a year after Jaws' initial release, acknowledged a correlation between the two films in its advertising campaign.
I was also struck by how the film interrogates our relationship with the past, in ways that are somewhat haunting. Though loosely based on real-life incidents surrounding the U.S.S. Essex (dramatized in Ron Howard’s 2015 film In the Heart of the Sea), Moby Dick is not a historical film about nineteenth century American seafaring. By contrast, John Farrow’s 1946 adaptation of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (starring Alan Ladd) is based on real events, though nowhere near as famous as Melville’s novel or its adaptations. Huston’s film does, however, point to a real and identifiable past, in 1841. This is accomplished through period costumes and set decoration, but there is another crucial element that the film uses to build a connection between the viewer and the past that is worth noting: the ritual of the sea shanty.
One of the more interesting ways that cinema brings the past to life is through sound. The images of the past--photographs and paintings--are readily available to be recreated on-screen. Actors can also utter history's famous written words. The sounds of the past, however, are much more difficult to retrieve beyond the advent of sound recording technology, and therefore require cinematic reimaging. War chants, for example, become an effective narrative strategy, producing many iconic moments that send a chill down our spine as a mighty barbarian horde prepares for combat; musical instruments in 18th century Vienna are also heard clearly as if we were watching modern day concert footage, though it carries a stronger impact because it's also a voice from the past. Moby Dick contains several scenes involving sea shanties that imbue this story of the past with a sense of haunting and sanctify the nineteenth century mariner in American cultural memory.
In the film’s opening sequence, Ishmael (Richard Baseheart) is literally flung into rough world of sea trade. He arrives at a New Bedford inn on a stormy evening, prepared to bunk with Polynesian harpoonist Queequeg. While conversing with the barman over a night cap in the inn’s pub, a group of seaman begin singing “The Maid of Amsterdam” (also referred to as “A-Roving”) and engage in a boisterous circle dance. One of the sailors, Stubb (Harry Andrews), approaches Ishmael mid-song and urges him to join in the merriment. Ishmael is thrust into what can be described as a nineteenth century “mosh pit,” his initiation into the mariner's world.
Later, when Ishmael and Queequag depart from New Bedford on the vessel Pequod, the crew shoves off to "Heave Away My Johnny," sung on-set by English folksinger A.L. "Bert" Lloyd (1908-1982) in a "call and response" fashion. The shanty is accompanied by the cabin boy Pip (Tamba Allenby) playing a tambourine, the ship's American flag billowing above him. What is interesting about this moment is scene's use dissolve transitions to create a haunting effect. This works effectively on a narrative level in several interesting ways. For one, it is an eerie foreshadowing of the fate that will befall these men; the Pequod's crew are now ghosts of the past, serving only now as a grim reminder of the lesson's of Melville's fable, and in this scene we can see their transition from the world of the living into myth and legend. This hallucinatory effect, which would later appear in Apocalypse Now, also positions Huston's film as a reminder of the past's unfinished business with us.
Lastly, I'm also interested in the ways that Huston has inspired Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson has been vocal about the ways that Treasure of the Sierra Madre has influenced There Will Be Blood (2007), and it is also interesting how the inflections in Daniel Plainview's (Daniel Day Lewis) voice are similar to Huston's voice. In The Master (2012), Anderson visually quotes Huston's World War II documentary Let There Be Light (1946), a film about a group of veteran's PTSD treatment and their transition to civilian life (the film was banned until the 1980s, and can now be seen as a DVD extra for The Master). The Master also contains an homage to Moby Dick, where The Cause's leader, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), leads partygoers in a round of "A-Roving".
Ultimately, I would choose Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, or Prizzi's Honor as my preferred viewing over Moby Dick (to be honest, I also have a soft spot for The Red Badge of Courage, despite its shortcomings). Still, I believe that Moby Dick is worthy of some more attention, as it still contains some strong moments 60 years on, as well as one of the better novel-to-film adaptation efforts in film history.