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Laramie Movie Scope:
Moby Dick

A madman's obsession with vengeance against a whale

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1956) The movie opens with the same "Call me Ishmael" spoken in a voice-over by a young man (Richard Basehart) who goes to sea when he feels "November in my soul," relating a first-person account as in Herman Melville's classic American novel from which director John Huston (co-writer with Ray Bradbury of the screenplay) produced a two-hour Cliffs Notes version of "the greatest hunt of all."

Traipsing into New Bedford in 1841, Ishmael takes a room with one bed, which he shares with Queequeg (Friederich Ledebur), a tattooed heathen cannibal and harpooner, of whom he muses: "better than a drunken Christian." After Stubb (Harry Andrews), a veteran sailor, refers to God as a whale, inside a church with its walls covered in memorials to lost seamen, Father Mapple (Orson Welles) in a pulpit shaped like a ship's prow, delivers a sermon on Jonah's punishment for disobeying God and salvation from inside a leviathan.

As Ishmael and Queequeg, bonded in friendship, sign on to the Pequod, a whaler, a Quaker agent named Peleg (Mervyn Jones) speaks of the ship's captain's appearance: "His looks tell more than any church sermon about the mortality of man." Another foreboding comes from someone calling himself Elijah, warning the pair of "signing away souls" on a cursed ship under the command of a madman with the name of an evil king, whose blood dogs licked up, and prophesying a disaster.

For the first quarter of the picture, Capt Ahab (Gregory Peck) remains unseen, though from below decks the crew takes note of the nightly sound of his artificial leg, carved from a whale's jawbone, thumping on his rounds. Vivid, realistic attention is devoted to the sailing ship's rigging, unfurling masts, and upkeep as the Pequod heads for open seas and then to the chase of whales and the bloody business of harpooning and hauling them aboard.

When "the supreme lord and dictator" makes his appearance (Peck in black top hat and bearded in a Lincolnesque visage), his face scarred from being split, Ahab exhorts his men to keep a sharp eye open for the great white whale, nailing a Spanish gold ounce to the mast for the first who makes sighting.

Among the spellbound international crew, only First-mate Starbuck (Leo Genn) has the conscience and courage to confront the captain's obsession with Moby Dick: "I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance." To which Ahab sharply replies: "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." Starbuck answers: "I am against thee."

Following a report from the Samuel Enderby of a sighting of the white whale, its Capt Boomer resists joining the insane pursuit: "I'll not sail with you, sir!" Later when the whalers come upon a huge number of their prey, Ahab ("I do not give reasons, I give orders") puts off the "rich harvest" to make fast for the object of his revenge.

Invoking the law, Starbuck's efforts to turn mates Stubb and Flask against the captain's usurpation of a ship for a purpose other than its owners' intentions are flatly rejected. Through a typhoon and St Elmo's fire ("lights the way to the white whale"), Ahab maniacally presses on, driven by a "nameless, inscrutable" force of fate, which he confesses was "immutably decreed a billion years before "

In April near Bikini, from the topmast comes the cry: "Thar she blows!"

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2011 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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