Only a maniac would adapt “Moby Dick” for the screen — so it’s a good thing John Huston was crazy.
The American director best known for “The African Queen” (1951), “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) almost always captained movies based on novels. But his 1956 adaptation of Herman Melville’s whale tale aimed for something greater than these. It was to be the definitive film version of the great American novel.
Huston pulled out all the stops: Ray Bradbury on the screenplay. Gregory Peck as Ahab. Orson Welles as the fiery sea preacher Father Mapple. And running beneath them all, a giant animatronic Moby Dick.
Huston shot most of the film in Ireland and Wales, swapping over-developed New England locations for these more rural coastlines. The animatronic whale drifted out to sea early in the production. Huston made up for the loss grandly by filling in a number of the whaling scenes with real footage of Portuguese whalers he followed to the Madeira Islands.
If only the rest of the film had been as grand. Bradbury worked largely on his impressions of what the novel was about because — as he admitted to Huston early on — he had “never been able to read the damned thing.”
For his own part, Huston read himself too much into the novel. In Bradbury’s semi-fictionalized account of the production, “Green Shadows, White Whale” (1992), the author describes how Huston forced his crew to indulge in his every obsession — until he became much like the monomaniacal Ahab himself.
And yet the movie holds up. Although it couldn’t carry water for the original novel, Huston’s film conveys the same high-energy brooding that made Melville’s Ahab so magnetic. The camera angles rock with a seasick regularity and the film’s washed-out color palette drifts into a strange fever dream.
But most importantly, without “Moby Dick,” there would be no “Jaws” (1975). Steven Spielberg admired the film so much — particularly Peck’s portrayal of Ahab — that he wanted to include a nod to the character in his breakout film. The young director envisioned a smoky scene introducing the shark-obsessed character Quint where he watches “Moby Dick” and laughs at the inaccurate portrayals of human suffering.
Peck, however, refused to allow it, as he was ashamed of Ahab and didn’t want to resurrect the performance.