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Moby Dick (1956)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Moby Dick (1956)

In director John Huston's and Warner Bros.' dramatic, tragic, but stirring chase-adventure film about a white whale - it was based on Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby Dick, about the obsessive, self-destructive hunt by a possessed and mad sea-captain for a legendary, monstrous great white whale; the screenplay was scripted by both Ray Bradbury and Huston himself, the film's complex themes were numerous: good vs. evil, and man vs. God, amongst others:

  • the opening sequence was closely aligned with Herman Melville's original tale - it told about the arrival of young sailor Ishmael (Richard Basehart) in the whaling town of New Bedford in 1841; it was accompanied with his voice-over, as he proceeded on foot downhill to the Spouter Inn: ("Call me Ishmael. Some years ago, having little or no money, I thought I would sail about and see the oceans of the world. Whenever I get grim and spleenful, whenever I feel like knocking people's hats off in the street, whenever it's a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I know that it's high time to get to sea again. Choose any path you please and ten to one, it carries you down to water. There's a magic in water that draws all men away from the land, leads them over the hills, down creeks, and streams and rivers to the sea. The sea - where each man, as in a mirror, finds himself. And so it was I duly arrived at the town of New Bedford on a stormy Saturday late in the year 1841")
  • Ishmael's intention was to sign on as a sailor on the whaling ship the Pequod; the eager and adventuresome young lad spent the night in a boarding house with a "strange bedfellow" - tattooed Pacific Islander harpooner Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur); both were hired the next day to join Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) in his demonic and maniacal quest for a white whale
  • before leaving, Ishmael attended a church service led by Puritanical Father Mapple (Orson Welles), who delivered a long, stirring, cautionary sermon from a prow-shaped pulpit about the Biblical character of Job and the consequences of disobeying God's will; he ranted about the battle of good vs. evil in the soul of man, with nautical metaphors, reference to St. Paul, and inspiration from the Biblical whale tale of Jonah, ending with the words: ("...Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, Shipmates? TO PREACH THE TRUTH IN THE FACE OF FALSEHOOD. Now Shipmates, woe to him who seeks to pour oil on the troubled waters when God has brewed them into a gale. Yea, woe to him who, as the Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway. But delight is to him who against the proud gods and commodores of this Earth stands forth his own inexorable self, who destroys all sin, though he pluck it out from under the robes of senators and judges! And Eternal Delight shall be his, who coming to lay him down can say:- O Father, mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be thine, more than to be this world's or mine own, yet this is nothing, I leave eternity to Thee. For what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?")
  • the Pequod made its sailing departure from Nantucket for a whaling expedition
  • one-legged Captain Ahab made a dramatic entrance when he first appeared before his crew (with the narrator's voice-over description) - "Looming straight up and over us, like a solid iron figurehead suddenly thrust into our vision stood Captain Ahab. His whole, high, broad form weighed down upon a barbaric white leg carved from the jawbone of a whale. He did not feel the wind or smell the salt air. He only stood staring at the horizon with the marks of some inner crucifixion and woe deep in his face"

Captain Ahab's Entrance

The Crazed Ahab's Description of His Prey

Toast Proposed by Ahab: "The Measure. Drink and Pass"
  • in the subsequent scene, Ahab described the curious crew's prey, a great white whale; he offered a "Spanish gold ounce" to the first one who sighted the whale: ("You're to look for a white whale. A whale as white and as big as a mountain of snow...Whosoever of ye finds me that white whale, ye shall have this Spanish gold ounce, my boys! It's a white whale, I say. Skin your eyes for him")
  • and then throughout the sailing, Ahab vengefully ranted and raved about the injustice of his own maiming (he lost his left leg and had a replacement peg leg) on a previous voyage years earlier against the monstrous beast. The crew toasted their objective - to bring "Death to Moby Dick." ("He's struck full of harpoons, men. And his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat. And he fantails like a broken jib in a storm. Death, men, you've seen him. It's Moby Dick....Aye. It was Moby Dick that tore my soul and body until they bled into each other. Aye. I'll follow him around the Horn and around the Norway Maelstrom and around Perdition's flames before I give him up. This is what you've shipped for, men. To chase that white whale on both sides of land and over all sides of earth until he spouts black blood and rolls dead out. What say ye? I think you do look brave. Will ya splice hands on it?...Steward, go draw the great measure of grog. Harpooneers, get your weapons. Mates, your lances. Ye mariners, now ring me in that I may revive a noble custom of my fisherman fathers. The measure. Drink and pass. Round with it, round. Quick draughts, long swallows, men. It's hot as Satan's hoof. That way it went, this way it comes. It spiralizes in ye. Here, hand it me. Well done. Almost drained. Advance, mates. Cross your lances. Now, let me touch the axis. Do you feel it? That same lightning which struck me, I now strike to this iron. Does it burn, men? Does it burn? Harpooneers, break your weapons. Turn up the sockets. Drink here, harpooneers, drink and swear. God hunt us all if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death" - Crew: "Death to Moby Dick!")
  • Captain Ahab also eloquently delivered a monologue to Quaker Chief Mate Starbuck (Leo Genn), about how he began hunting whales forty years earlier as a "boy harpooner"; he described his relentless, obsessive search every since to pursue the great white whale Moby Dick: ("Why this madness of the chase, this boiling blood and smoking brow? Why palsy the arm at the oar, the iron, the lance? I feel old, Starbuck, and bowed. As though I were Adam staggering under the piled centuries since paradise....What is it? What nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing commands me against all human lovings and longings to keep pushing and crowding and jamming myself on all the time, making me do what in my own natural heart I dare not dream of doing? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it l, God, or Who that lifts this arm? But if the great sun cannot move except by God's invisible power, how can my small heart beat, my brain think thoughts, unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not l? By heavens, man, we are turned round and round in this world. Like yonder windlass and fate is the handspike. And all the time, that smiling sky and this unsounded sea. Look ye into its deeps and see the everlasting slaughter that goes on. Who put it into its creatures to chase and fang one another? Where do murderers go, man? Who's to doom when the judge himself is dragged before the bar?")
  • during the journey, Starbuck suggested a mutiny against Ahab's insane quest to change course from successful whaling, in order to follow reports of Moby Dick's whereabouts. He spoke to his fellow officers: cheerful, pipe-smoking 2nd mate Stubb (Harry Andrews) and 3rd mate Flask (Seamus Kelly), but they resisted him
  • Starbuck reacted by expressing the inevitability of their pre-determined fate, if he couldn't end Ahab's life with one gunshot; he trembled before Ahab, knowing he could not stop him: ("Because I do not have the bowels to slaughter thee and save the whole ship's company from being dragged to doom. Oh, I plainly see my miserable office: to obey, or rebelling. Worse still, to help thee to thine impious end")
  • a foreshadowing of the ship's fate came with Queequeg's order to have the ship's carpenter construct a water-proofed coffin for him. During their ominous and unholy search for the whale, the Pequod came upon the Rachel, another whaling ship from New Bedford. Captain Gardiner (Francis de Wolff) requested that Ahab aid in a search for his missing youngest son who had been carried away by the whale, but Ahab coldly refused
  • after a damaging typhoon, Ahab confirmed that he sensed that they were close to the white whale: ("Starbuck, ye are tied to me. This act is immutably decreed. It was rehearsed by ye and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. The air. Do you smell it, lads, what the wind carries?...Aye. A coral reef, green moss, shells, bits and pieces from all the oceans he ever swam through. An island to himself is the white whale"); shortly later, Moby Dick was finally spotted and there came the cry: ("Thar she blows!")
  • Ahab ordered his harpooners and crew to pursue the beast in long boats, for an ill-fated chase. Ahab was finally able to encounter his nemesis - the great white whale. The whale furiously retaliated and counter-attacked in a thrilling sequence
  • Ahab's harpoon struck the side of the whale, but also ensnared him in the weapon's rope; lashed up against Moby Dick, he became entangled in the harpoon ropes wrapping around the mortally-wounded creature, but still frantically stabbed at the whale's side until it submerged and drowned him: ("From hell's heart, I stab at thee! For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee, thou damned whale!")
  • the sailors watched as the whale surfaced, and saw that the dead Ahab's loose arm was signaling to them: "You see? Do you see? Ahab beckons. He's dead, but he beckons"; they saw the monstrous wounded whale continue its rampage against the ship - it returned to the Pequod to sink it by circling around it and creating a deadly, maelstrom whirlpool, killing all crew members except the sole-surviving Ishmael
  • a final voice-over was presented by Ishmael, who was rescued by clinging and resting on Queequeg's coffin; he was later picked up and saved by the Rachel - he was the only one left to tell the tale of what had happened: ("Drowned Queequeg's coffin was my life buoy. For one whole day and night, it sustained me on that soft and dirge-like main. Then a sail appeared. It was the Rachel. The Rachel, who in her long melancholy search for her missing children found another orphan. The drama's done. All are departed away. The great shroud of the sea rolls over the Pequod, her crew and Moby Dick. I only am escaped, alone to tell thee")

Ishmael's Opening Voice-Over Sequence

Father Mapple's Sermon

The Sailing of the Pequod

Captain Ahab's Monologue to Starbuck (Leo Genn) About His Crazed Quest

Ahab's Obsessive Quest

Encounter with the Great White Whale

Ahab - Stabbing at Whale with Harpoon

Ahab Entangled in Ropes Around Moby Dick - Beckoning the Sailors to Continue the Quest After His Death

Ishmael's Salvation on Queequeg's Floating Coffin


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