Moby Dick (1956 film)

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Moby Dick
Moby dick434.jpg
1976 theatrical re-release poster
Directed byJohn Huston
Produced by
  • Associate producers:
  • Jack Clayton
  • Lee Katz
  • Co-producer:
  • Vaughn N. Dean
  • Producer:
  • John Huston
Screenplay by
Based on
Music byPhilip Sainton
CinematographyOswald Morris
Edited byRussell Lloyd
Moulin Productions
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • June 27, 1956 (1956-06-27)
Running time
116 min.
CountryUnited States
BudgetUS$ 4,500,000 or £2 million[citation needed]
Box office$5.2 million (US)[1]

Moby Dick is a 1956 colour film adaptation of Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick. It was directed by John Huston with a screenplay by Huston and Ray Bradbury. The film starred Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, and Leo Genn.

The music score was written by Philip Sainton.

In order to create a visual effect reminiscent of old whaling prints, a black and white print was superimposed on a color print.


Set in 1841 in New Bedford in New England, the story follows the whaling ship Pequod and its crew.

Ishmael wanders the countryside and explains his wish to see the sea and wish to see the world. A storm starts and he goes to a bar and orders a pint of rum. Stubb comes up to him and asks him to join the group. They look at a painting on the wall of a whale destroying a boat with its tail. Captain Ahab is audible walking outside (due to his wooden leg) and the group grow quiet for a minute before breaking into sea shanties.

In his room he reads a book about whales. A strange man covered in tattoos (Queequeg) enters and joins him in bed smoking a pipe. The tattooed man is shocked and is going to kill him until another crew member enters and explains.

In church the camera pans along the wall memorials, each to a man "killed by a whale". Father Mapple enters and climbs a rope ladder to his pulpit which is built to resemble the prow of a ship. His sermon is on Jonah and the whale.

Back in his room Queequeg explains his lineage to Ishmael. They agree to join up together on the first whaler which will take them. The next day they go to the harbour. They arrive at the Pequod... he is impressed. The cleats ar made from whale teeth and the tiller is made from a whale's jaw. They meet Peleg, a Quaker. They then go to Bildad to arrange the pay: one 300th of the haul. Ishmael queries Ahab's name, a Bible name of bad luck. They sign on ...Queequeg makes his mark.. a whale. He gets on sixtieth share because he shows his skill with a harpoon.

The ship is loaded with food and supplies. A man (Elijah) on the quay warns them of how wicked Ahab is. He prophecises that Ahab will die but return to beckon them, and also that only one man will survive. The women watch as they raise the sails and weigh anchor. The trip is to be three years. They head to the Azores.

Ahab is not seen in daylight but they hear his peg leg walking the deck at night. Then one day he appears. His leg is carved from the jawbone of a whale, but makes no attempt to look like a leg. He tells them to look for a "great white whale", Moby Dick, who bit half of his left leg. He nails a gold coin to the mast for the first man to spot it. Having fired the crew up the grog is passed around. Ahab inspects the harpoons.

Below decks the Manxman explains the story of Moby Dick, a huge albino whale.

The next day the first whale is found, and three rowboats set out in chase. Queequeg strikes with the first harpoon and soon all three boats are being pulled by the whale. One boat is capsized before the whale is subdued. At night they slice the blubber and boil it down for fuel oil. In the morning they cast the bare bones back in the sea. Starbuck informs Ahab that they produced 85 barrels of oil. Ahab shows him a chart of the Pacific marked with various whale sitings. He says they will round the Cape of Good Hope and head east: Moby Dick is marked at Bikini Atoll.

Ishmael has his first shift as spotter at the top of the main mast. He spots a huge school of whales. They catch many. A second ship appears captained by Boomer. Boomer has lost his left arm to Moby. It is replaced by whale bone and a harpoon spike as a hand. He says he saw him off the coast of Madagascar. Ahab wants to leave the bounty of whales and track Moby instead. The crew become unsettled as it seems illogical. Starbuck reads from the mariners rulebook and makes it clear that Ahab has usurped the wishes of the ship owners. He incites mutiny to Stubb and Flask but they resist.

They continue towards bikini and by April 1842 are in the correct waters. A man falls into the sea and disappears. The temperature rises and the ship is becalmed and the gold coin on the mast glistens in the sunlight. Queequeg throws bones to prophecise the future - he asks the carpenter to make a coffin 6'7 to hold him. Pip tries to cheer him up by playing a tambourine. A man cuts a picture onto Queequeg's chest with no reaction. Ishmael punches him and a fight starts. The man is going to kill Ishmael and Queequeg comes out of his trance, just as the spotter sees the spout of a whale. This time Ahab and Pip join the rowboat on the hunt. Seagulls swarm around over the calm sea. Moby Dick appears for a few seconds. They return to the ship. The whale is not restricted by the becalming.

Ahab gives the spotter his gold coin from the mast and promises the crew his 10% of the takings if they kill Moby Dick. They spot a sister ship, "The Rachel" out of New Bedford under Captain Gardiner. The captain seeks help but Ahab refuses it.

Ahab asks the blacksmith to forge new harpoons for the task and the men are sworn to give their blood. They toast "Death to Moby Dick". A wild storm starts. Ahab makes use of the wind. Starbuck asks to take the sails in for safety but is refused. Ahab tells the crew to "earn their salt" to catch Moby Dick who is three days ahead of them. The weather starts to destroy the sails but Ahab orders men to go up to lower more sails. They are in danger of capsizing. Starbuck goes to cut the ropes to release the sail but Ahab threatens to harpoon him if he does so. As Ahab holds the harpoon it is hit by St. Elmo's fire and glows. Ahab sees this as an omen and grips the spearhead absorbing the electricity. Starbuck goes below and arms himself with a pistol, concealed in his trousers.

Ahab reminisces about his youth and his first whale in the calm after the storm. He stares into Starbuck's eyes. Ahab has gone crazy. Ahab and the men smell land... an atoll. Ishmael remembers Elijah's prophecy and relates it to Ahab... that all are doomed. As he ends a call from the rigging rings "There She Blows". Moby Dick is spotted. Pip is told to stay on board as captain and proudly accepts the task.

Moby Dick still carries Ahab's harpoon in his back from their last encounter.

They put out al four rowboats, fully manned. Ahab stands at the front of one boat, Queequeg on the second, Tashtego on the third, Daggoo on the last. All four strike and all four boats are pulled along at speed. The whale turns. Its huge mouth consumes the first boat. Ahab ends on the whale clinging to the harpoon rope. The men see him stabbing and stabbing. His last words are "Damn this whale" before disappearing below the waves.

The men are heading back when Moby Dick resurfaces. Ahab is trapped dead in the ropes. The movement makes his dead arm flop as if beckoning the men. They go in for a further attack spurred by Stubb. Tashtego's boat is wrecked.

Then Moby heads at the Pequod ramming it. The force drops the main spar killing Pip. The seagulls circle as the Pequod sinks and disappears leaving a whirlpool.

Ishmael is the only survivor. He clings to Queequeg's empty coffin floating on the surface and is found 36 hours later by the Rachel to tell the tale.


The films reference to Bikini Atoll as the home of Moby Dick is not in the novel. This peculiar twist seems to be a reference to the recent Castle Bravo nuclear bomb test at the atoll. This reference and its significance is lost to modern audiences.

This insertion by Bradbury relates to his atomic bomb short story "There Will Come Soft Rains".


Peck was initially surprised to be cast as Ahab (part of the studio's agreement to fund the film was that Huston use a "name" actor as Ahab). Peck later commented that he felt Huston himself should have played Ahab. Huston had long wanted to make a film of Moby-Dick, and had intended to cast his own father, actor Walter Huston as Ahab, but he had died in 1950.[2] Peck went on to play the role of Father Mapple in the 1998 television miniseries adaptation of Melville's novel, with Patrick Stewart as Ahab.

Welles later used the salary from his cameo to fund his own stage production of Moby Dick, in which Rod Steiger played Captain Ahab.

Gregory Peck, comparing his performances in this film and the 1998 Moby Dick miniseries, said he liked the miniseries better because it was more faithful to the novel.


During a meeting to discuss the screenplay, Ray Bradbury informed John Huston that regarding Melville's novel, he had "never been able to read the damned thing". According to the biography The Bradbury Chronicles, there was much tension and anger between the two men during the making of the film, allegedly due to Huston's bullying attitude and attempts to tell Bradbury how to do his job, despite Bradbury being an accomplished writer. Bradbury's novel Green Shadows, White Whale includes a fictionalized version of his writing the screenplay with John Huston in Ireland. Bradbury's short story "Banshee" is another fictionalized account of what it was like to work with Huston on this film. In the television adaptation of the story for The Ray Bradbury Theater the Huston character was played by Peter O'Toole and the Bradbury surrogate by Charles Martin Smith.

The film was bankrolled by brothers Walter, Harold, and Marvin Mirisch, who financed Huston's Moulin Rouge. The Mirisches made a deal with Warner Bros. in order to release the film. Under the agreement, WB would distribute Moby Dick for seven years, after which all rights would revert to the Mirisch brothers' company, Moulin Productions.[3]

The film began shooting in Wales at Fishguard and Ceibwr Bay, Fishguard at Huston's request.[4] Parts of the movie were shot at the sea in front of Caniçal, a traditional whaling parish in Madeira Islands, Portugal, with real action of whaling, done by whalers of Madeira Island. It was also filmed in Las Canteras beach, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain. Captain Alan Villiers commanded the ship for the film.[5]

Many exterior scenes set in New Bedford were shot on location in Youghal, Co. Cork, Ireland. The town has a public house, originally called Linehan's and at that time owned by Paddy Linehan, whose exterior appears in the movie. It was renamed Moby Dick's shortly after filming by Linehan. It is still owned and run by the Linehan family and boasts a fine collection of photographs taken of the cast and crew during the making of the film. While there, John Huston used the bar as his headquarters to plan each day's filming. The town's harbor basin, in front of Moby Dick's bar, was used to stand in as New Bedford's harbor, and some local people appear as extras in the ship's departure scene. Youghal's nineteenth century lighthouse also appears in a scene of the Pequod putting to sea (at sunset) on her fateful voyage.[6][7]

A myth that was put to rest in cinematographer Oswald Morris' autobiography, Huston, We Have a Problem, is that no full-length whale models were ever built for the production. Previous accounts have claimed that as many as three 60-foot rubber "white whales" were lost at sea during filming, making them "navigational hazards". In fact the titular whale shown in the film was constructed by Dunlop in Stoke-on-Trent, England.[8] Moby Dick was 75 ft long and weighed 12 tons, and required 80 drums of compressed air and a hydraulic system in order to remain afloat and operational.[8] However the artificial whale came loose from its tow-line and drifted away in a fog.[8] Peck confirmed in 1995 that he was aboard the prop.[9] According to Morris, after the prop was lost the Pequod was followed by a barge with various whale parts (hump, back, fin, tail). Ninety percent of the shots of the white whale are various size miniatures filmed in a water tank in Shepperton Studios in Surrey, near London. Whales and longboat models were built by a special effects man, August Lohman, working in conjunction with art director Stephen Grimes. Studio shots also included a life-size Moby jaw and head - with working eyes. The head apparatus which could move like a rocking horse was employed when actors were in the water with the whale.[clarification needed] Gregory Peck's last speech is delivered in the studio while riding the white whale's hump (a hole was drilled in the side of the whale so Peck could conceal his real leg).

The Pequod was portrayed by, appropriately, the Moby Dick. Built in England in 1887 as the Ryelands, the ship came into the hands of the film industry in the 50s, and was also used in Treasure Island. It was destroyed by fire in Morecambe, England in 1972.[10] The schooners used were Harvest King and James Postlethwaite, both from Arklow, Ireland.[11]

The film went overbudget, from $2 million to around $4.4 million, which crippled Moulin Productions; Moby Dick was ultimately sold to United Artists in order to recoup some of the Mirisch brothers' debt (Warner Bros. still distributed the film, corresponding to their original licensing agreement; When the agreement ended, United Artists took over the film's distribution rights. After UA was acquired by MGM in 1981, the latter studio assumed distribution and currently holds the film's copyright).[12] Moby Dick did not recoup its budget upon its initial release.[12]

Peck and Huston intended to shoot Herman Melville's Typee in 1957, but the funding fell through. Not long after, the two had a falling-out. According to one biography, Peck discovered to his disappointment that he had not been Huston's choice for Ahab, but in fact was thrust upon the director by the Mirisch brothers to secure financing. Peck felt Huston had deceived him into taking a part for which Peck felt he was ill-suited. Years later, the actor tried to patch up his differences with the director, but Huston, quoted in Lawrence Grobel's biography The Hustons, rebuked Peck ("It was too late to start over", said Huston) and the two never spoke to each other again.[13] Nevertheless, Huston's daughter Anjelica confirmed in a 2003 Larry King Live interview that her father had "adored" Peck.[14]

In the documentary accompanying the DVD marking the 30th anniversary of the film Jaws, director Steven Spielberg states his original intention had been to introduce the Ahab-like character Quint (Robert Shaw), by showing him watching the 1956 version of the film and laughing at the inaccuracies therein. However, permission to use footage of the original film was denied by Gregory Peck as he was uncomfortable with his performance.[15]

At the age of four, Anjelica Huston met Peck dressed as Ahab when she visited the set of her father's film. Decades later, she and Peck would meet again and become close friends with each other until the latter's death.[14][16]


The film has an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus that "It may favor spectacle in place of the deeper themes in Herman Melville's novel, but John Huston's Moby Dick still makes for a grand movie adventure."[17] Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "a rolling and thundering color film that is herewith devoutly recommended as one of the great motion pictures of our times ... Space does not possibly permit us to cite all the things about this film that are brilliantly done or developed, from the strange, subdued color scheme employed to the uncommon faithfulness to details of whaling that are observed."[18] Variety wrote, "Essentially it is a 'chase' picture with all the inherent interest thereby implied and yet not escaping the quality of sameness and repetition which often dulls the chase formula." The review also found that "Peck often seems understated and much too gentlemanly for a man supposedly consumed by insane fury."[19] Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times found the film to be "something less than really great," although it "has great moments, and is amazingly individual in its art, various phases of its drama, and notably in characters."[20] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post called it "one of the rare ones, the sort of picture people will remember and rank as one of the screen's classics ... Not only is the film immensely exciting in purely screen terms, it is a haunting philosophical study."[21] Harrison's Reports praised the "excellence of the production values" but noted, "It is not until the last few reels, where a violent battle to the death takes place between the whale and the crew, that the action becomes highly exciting. This fierce combat with the whale has been staged in thrilling fashion and is the highlight of the film, but it is not enough to compensate for the lack of excitement in the preceding reels."[22] John McCarten of The New Yorker called it "a fine, big, elementary job that misses the mystical Melville by several nautical miles but affords us an almost completely satisfactory tour of the bounding main."[23]

The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "The physical excitements of the adventure story which is the superstructure of Melville's book are all admirably done. Where Huston has failed is in suggesting the mysticism of the book and the ominous influence of Moby Dick himself. The great white whale is no 'portentous and mysterious monster ... the gliding great demon of the seas of life'; he is often, only too clearly made of plastic and electronically controlled. Without this presence and motivation much of the story loses its significance."[24] TimeOut says "the great white whale is significantly less impressive when lifting bodily out of the sea to crush the Pequod than when first glimpsed one moonlit night...a pitifully weak Starbuck. But there are marvelous things here...[such as] nearly all the whaling scenes. Lent a stout overall unity by...the intelligent adaptation (and) by color grading which gives the images the tonal quality of old whaling is often staggeringly good.;"[25]

Comic book adaptation[edit]

Home media[edit]

Despite being a Warner Bros. film, United Artists distributed the VHS format through MGM on November 12, 1996 as part of the latter studio's Vintage Classics lineup, which was available exclusively through Warner Home Video worldwide. Kino Lorber released the DVD version on September 15, 2015. The now-sold out limited Blu-ray was released on November 15, 2016 by Twilight Time.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956". Variety Weekly. January 2, 1957.
  2. ^ Mirisch 2008, p. 72.
  3. ^ Mirisch 2008, p. 74.
  4. ^ Mirisch 2008, p. 76.
  5. ^ "Alan Villiers". Oxford Index. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  6. ^ "Moby Dick Youghal". August 14, 2010. Archived from the original on March 12, 2012. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  7. ^ "Moby Dick's Pub - Youghal, East Cork, Ireland - Chamber Members". Youghal Chamber of Tourism and Commerce. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  8. ^ a b c "The Memory: Moby Dick started life in Stoke-on-Trent". The Sentinel. December 13, 2008. Retrieved January 14, 2012.
  9. ^ "A Conversation with Gregory Peck". American Masters. Season 15. Episode 6. October 14, 1999. PBS.
  10. ^ "Morecambe Archives". Morecambe Online. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  11. ^ Forde, Frank (2000) [First published 1981]. The Long Watch (Revised ed.). Dublin: New Island Books. p. 138. ISBN 1-902602-42-0.
  12. ^ a b Mirisch 2008, p. 77.
  13. ^ Grobel, Lawrence (October 1989). The Hustons. Scribner. p. 812. ISBN 0-684190-19-2.
  14. ^ a b "Tribute to Gregory Peck". June 13, 2003. Retrieved June 26, 2014.
  15. ^ Bouzereau, Laurent (1995). A Look Inside Jaws ["From Novel to Script"]. Jaws: 30th Anniversary Edition DVD (2005): Universal Home Video.CS1 maint: location (link)
  16. ^ Adrian, Wootton (December 11, 2006). "Anjelica Huston". The Guardian. Retrieved June 26, 2014.
  17. ^ Moby Dick (1956) at Rotten Tomatoes
  18. ^ Crowther, Bosley (July 5, 1956). "Screen: John Huston and Melville's White Whale". The New York Times: 18.
  19. ^ "Moby Dick". Variety: 6. June 27, 1956.
  20. ^ Schallert, Edwin (July 3, 1956). "'Moby Dick' Packed With Many Thrills". Los Angeles Times: 12.
  21. ^ Coe, Richard L. (July 13, 1956). "'Moby Dick' Rings Bell". The Washington Post: 36.
  22. ^ "'Moby Dick' with Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart and Leo Genn". Harrison's Reports: 102. June 30, 1956.
  23. ^ McCarten, John (July 14, 1956). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker: 83.
  24. ^ "Moby Dick". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 23 (275): 150. December 1956.
  25. ^ "Moby Dick". Time Out London.
  26. ^ "Dell Four Color #717". Grand Comics Database.
  27. ^ Dell Four Color #717 at the Comic Book DB (archived from the original)

External links[edit]