Released by: Twilight Time Releasing
Released on: November 15th, 2016.
Director: John Huston
Cast: Orson Welles, Gregory Peck, Harry Andrews, Richard Basehart, James Robertson Justice, Leo Genn
Year: 1956 Purchase From Screen Archives
Directed by John Huston and adapted for the screen by none other than Ray Bradbury (and then tinkered with enough by Huston after the fact that he wound up with a co-writer credit), Moby Dick tells the well-known tale of Captain Ahab and his crew on their quest to take down the Great White Whale.
The movie opens with the familiar ‘Call me Ishmael’ line – just as it should – before introducing us to our narrator (Richard Basehart) as he comes into a small seaside town in hopes of finding a job on a whaling ship. After some drunken revelry with some hardened men, he bunks down for the night, unaware that he is to be sharing a bed with Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur), a southern pacific islander with a frightening tattooed visage. As Ishmael says to himself, however “Better a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
Ishmael and Queequeg become fast friends, learning from one another and forming a bond as they look for work. Despite the fact that a man named Elijah (Royal Dano) warns them against it, they soon find employment on the Pequod. This whaling ship stands out from the others as it’s literally adorned in the bones of its victims. Soon enough, Queequeg and Ishmael meet the ship’s intense operator, Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck). Years ago Ahab had his leg taken by a Great White Whale he’s named Moby Dick, and he intends to sail the seas of the world until he can track down and kill the beast. As they set out to sea, all onboard, including Ahab’s right hand man Starbuck (Leo Genn), realize that as enigmatic and inspiring as Ahab can be, his obsessions with Moby Dick borders on genuine insanity.
Huston’s film is a very strong adaptation of Herman Melville's 1851 novel. The script is careful enough to pay attention to the characters, sketching out our central players well enough that they all stand out from one another. Queequeg in particular is well written here. At first he’s intimidating based solely on his appearance but as we get to know him more, his kindness and loyalty soon make him quite endearing. Of course, Ahab is the catalyst for all that happens (we won’t ruin the ending here on the off chance that there are a few readers lurking about who haven’t read the book or seen the movie), so it’s key that he be written properly (and he is) but part of the appeal of this story has always been the supporting players. This take gets it all right.
The film moves at a nice pace, telling a truly epic tale in just under two hours and never once feeling dull or plodding. The effects are a product of their time but many of them hold up really well. While there are a few that are clearly staged with miniatures in a tank, there are more shot out on the open water that really are quite impressive. Huston had a great eye for detail and that characteristic is all over the film, from the whale bones worked into the various parts of the Pequod to the bones used when Queequeg tries to see into the future to the costumes to the seaside townsfolk that are scattered about the opening scene (highlighted by a great sequence in which none other than Orson Welles plays a preacher who would seem to be as obsessed with whales as Ahab himself).
The performances here are great. Friedrich von Ledebur and Richard Basehart are likeable in their roles and carry the lighter side of the movie – at least to start with – leaving Gregory Peck to channel the darkness and obsession so inherent in the story and his character. Peck, who looks uncannily like Abraham Lincoln in this film, is likewise quite excellent. His strong voice and inimitable screen presence really give Ahab a lot of weight and intensity. When he speaks, his crew listens – and so does the audience! Leo Genn also stands out here as the stalwart Christian second in command. He’s the logical side to Ahab’s madness, but he can only do so much.
A fantastic cast. Great direction. Impressive effects. Amazing use of sound. An epic and timeless story. What more could you ask for?
Moby Dick arrives on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.66.1 widescreen. This is a tricky film to grade in some ways, because it has been intentionally color graded to the point where it’s almost black and white. The image does show some primaries, the most obvious and startling example being the first time that one of the whales is harpooned and it spouts blood out of its blowhole, but very little. This was, however, done intentionally and it isn’t a flaw in the picture, but rather the intended look of the film (as is explained in a featurette included with the disc). Color aside, the transfer is well authored. There are no problems to note with any compression artifacts and the elements used were clearly in very nice shape as there isn’t much in the way of print damage to discuss at all.
The film’s DTS-HD Mono track, in English, is quite good. For an older single channel mix there’s quite a bit of power to it, particularly in the film’s last half hour when the men are out after the titular whale. Dialogue is clean, clear and nicely balanced and there are no issues with hiss or distortion. The score sounds good and Peck’s instantly recognizable voice sounds quite stately and strong here.
The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor and Nick Redman. Kirgo and Seydor carry the bulk of the talk, going into a lot of interesting detail about the film’s allegorical and metaphorical aspects and making some interesting observations about how good Bradbury’s adaptation of the source material was, Huston’s tinkering with the script, how Melville’s life influenced his writing and quite a bit more. They talk up the locations, share a lot of interesting insight into the performances and point out a lot of little details in the production that you might not pick up on the first time around. It’s a lively and interesting talk with a lot of good information in it.
The disc also includes an interesting featurette called A Bleached Whale: Recreating The Unique Color Of Moby Dick. This ten minute piece talks about how Huston’s intended color grading for the film, which he wanted to replicate centuries old whaling prints, was not inherent in the original negative. As such, two Technicolor prints that did reflect the intended color scheme so that a restoration could be done in keeping with the director’s vision. There’s some interesting before and after comparison footage in here and those who find technical issues like this interesting will definitely appreciate the inclusion of this piece on the disc.
Outside of that the disc also contains a still gallery, the film’s original theatrical trailer, an MGM 90th Anniversary promo trailer, the film’s isolated score in DTS-HD format, menus and chapter selection. Inside the clear keepcase along with the disc is an insert booklet containing a replica of the theatrical re-release poster art (‘Before the shark, there was the whale!) and some liner notes that offer up some trivia about the picture and that discuss the merits of the film’s cast in some interesting detail.
The Final Word:
John Huston’s filmed take on Moby Dick is classic high adventure! The film’s themes of obsession and insanity are timeless, the characters wonderfully written and acted and the direction quite strong. Great production values and some impressive effects set pieces stand out here as well. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release would seem to represent the director’s intended look for the film and the presentation is, with that in mind, quite good. Throw in a really interesting commentary and a few other extras and this is a really solid package for a truly great film.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!