A few months ago I reviewed the 1962 movie To Kill a Mockingbird, which co-starred Gregory Peck in an academy award winning role as Atticus Finch. Six years earlier, he played a very different kind of character, the revenge-filled Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.
While moviegoers and critics highly praise Peck and company, they do not to the extent I think they deserve.
Some of the reason is likely a failure of book fans to separate books from their movie adaptations. That is what you have to do sometimes. If not, you’ll spend the entire movie mourning the fact that it’s not a carbon copy of the book.
The film was even more harshly criticized when it first came out. They say that most of the criticism was leveled at Gregory Peck. Viewers and critics believed he was too “gentlemanly.” They apparently did not grasp Peck’s subtle portrayal of a man dead inside and simmering with an unspeakable rage. I have heard that even Peck himself was a harsh critic of his own portrayal of Ahab. He said he should have been cast in the role of the first mate, Starbuck instead.
While I am sure that Peck would have done an outstanding job in that role as well, we would have lost another outstanding performance at the hands of Leo Genn. Genn is probably not a name many people recognize these days. I have seen Genn in a number of other roles, but never as the central character. However, every time I have seen him, he has done an excellent acting job. Especially so here. Genn, as the austere Quaker, invokes a sense of cool-headed gravitas in his lone battle against Ahab’s cult-leader-like evil.
Peck and Genn were supported by an amazing cast (most of whom I have never seen before) that included Richard Basehart (Ishmael), Friedrich Ledebur (Queequeg), Royal Dano (Elijah), Leo Genn (Starbuck), Harry Andrews (Stubb), Tamba Allenby (Pip) and Seamus Kelly (Flask).
And then there is one of my favorite movie cameos of all time: Orson Welles as Father Mapple. Welles is well known to have been a big fan of the novel. His enormous love of the story is evident in his short but powerful sermon on Jonah, the whale, and the sovereignty of God. His immense eloquence and commanding presence are on full display. He stands as a fiery captain on that high ship’s bow-shaped pulpit looming over his congregation.
The only thing not particularly special in John Huston’s Moby Dick is the mediocre music score. I will stop short of calling the film Moby Dick a masterpiece. That being said, it probably belongs in a mid-rung of the greatest movies of all time, which ranks it just below masterpiece level.
As far as maritime movies, the realism of sailor’s life is in this one feels on par with the likes of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.