January 4, 2013 -- I bought a DVD of this movie from Ebay mainly because my fellow critic on this web site, Patrick Ivers wanted to see it. Until recently, this was a rare disk. It was high priced and not available from Netflix or other rental places. Recently a cheap region-free Korean version of the film became available online. It has the original English soundtrack, so I bought it.
There are some drawbacks to this disk, including the awful English subtitles, which are nowhere near to being accurate. They are so bad they are almost worse than having no subtitles at all. You know how you get these really badly written English translations of instructions sometimes with products made in other countries? These subtitles are like that. Other drawbacks of this disk is that it has only a stereo soundtrack and it only comes in “full screen” aspect ratio (1.33:1) which I think was the original aspect ratio of this made-for-TV film.
The actual production of “Moby Dick” is pretty good, a lot like a theatrical release of the movie, but longer, three hours (originally shown on television in three episodes). Because of the TV format, the editing is strange. It fades completely to black, probably commercial breaks, way more often than you would see in regular movie shown in a theater. It makes the editing seem sloppy.
In this particular adaptation, Patrick Stewart (of the “Star Trek” and “X-Men” movies) is the only star with a big name. He plays Ahab (he actually spoke some of the same lines from Moby Dick as Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: First Contact”). Stewart chews up the scenery in some of the famous lines from the book (“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me;” and “from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee”). Stewart also tones it down for some of Ahab's quieter scenes.
The only other adaptation I've seen of this film is the 1956 version (same 1.33:1 aspect ratio because of the era in which it was made) starring Gregory Peck as Ahab, directed by John Huston and written by the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. This new version holds up pretty well against the older one, with its advantages being in the area of special effects and the performance of Piripi Waretini in the role of Queequeg. This guy has a big personality and ready laugh and he is way more convincing as an uncivilized harpooner than was Friedrich von Ledebur in the earlier film.
Although Gregory Peck did not like his performance as Ahab, I think he did very well with the role, better than Stewart did. Peck actually appears in both films, in the second as Father Maple (Orson Welles had this role in the first film). It was the last screen performance of Peck's career, and he got an Emmy nomination for it. Peck was extremely effective as Father Maple, outshining the great Orson Welles, but they didn't show him climbing to the pulpit the way Welles did.
The other two main performances in the 1956 film were better, too. Leo Genn as Starbuck and Harry Andrews as Stubb, were better than their counterparts in the later film, Ted Levine and Hugh Keays-Byrne, respectively. The other main character, Ishmael, played by Richard Basehart in the original film and Henry Thomas in the second, is about the same kind of performance in both films. You would think Ishmael to be a key figure in this story, but he isn't.
It was nice to see Ted Levine get a chance to play a good guy in Moby Dick, after getting typecast as the bad guy after his memorable performance as a killer in “Silence of the Lambs.” He is a little weak in the role of Starbuck, but he actually does a pretty good job in a very key role. Starbuck is arguably the most important figure in the film. He is the only crewman not under Ahab's spell, but is tragically unable to do what it takes to stop Ahab's fatal obsession. This is made clearer in this film, which has a very different ending for Starbuck than did the 1956 film, and it is also closer to the account in the book.
There is quite a bit more in this film than in the 1956 film because of its extended length, a trip through a treacherous ice field, the search for Pipp and extended scenes between Starbuck and Ahab, but it leaves out some things that were in the 1956 film, too, like the discussion about Ahab having the same name as that of a wicked king in the Bible. The meeting with Elijah is different too, closer to the book, but not as effective as the same scene in the 1956 film. That is due to Bradbury's superb screenplay.
There have been a number of adaptations of this book, arguably the greatest of all American novels, and this made-for-TV adaptation is a worthy addition, truer to the book than the 1956 film and it looks better too. For my money, the 1956 adaptation is still better, but this one is good too. It rates a B.
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