Moby Dick (review)

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We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

The first thing you notice in the USA Networks movie Moby Dick* is that little Elliott from E.T. has grown up really nicely, and gee, he’s kinda cute. Henry Thomas does a nice accent as Ismael, the 19th-century Nantucket schoolteacher with a “burning desire” for the sea. The next thing you notice are the bad omens: Even if you don’t know Herman Melville’s story, the crazy old guy on the dock dispensing raving prophecies for disaster like a Shakespearean witch and intense old Father Mapple (Gregory Peck) growling out a sermon about Jonah surely do not bode well for young Ismael’s prospects.

And then you notice that Starbuck — first mate on the Pequod, the whaling ship that Ismael signs on to — is played by The Silence of the Lambs‘ Ted Levine (“It puts the lotion on its skin”), and that he’s really, really mesmerizing with a completely different kind of intensity here. He and Thomas and Piripi Waretini as the Maori harpooner Queequeg are so good that when Captain Ahab makes his appearance 45 minutes into the film, you realize with a start that here finally is Patrick Stewart, the only reason you’re watching the movie in the first place.
Traditionally pegged as a story of obsession and revenge, Moby Dick is as much about how greed and superstition can also drive men. Ahab, his leg chomped off by the white whale called Moby Dick, abandons all plans for bringing the Pequod home with a belly full of valuable whale oil in favor of hunting down and killing the beast. With his peg leg of whalebone and his scarred face, Ahab is an fierce, strange figure wandering the deck of the Pequod. But more frightening is how easily he seduces his crew into joining his obsession. First he promises a hunk of Spanish gold for the man who finds Moby Dick; the money brought in by whale oil would have been much greater, but logic doesn’t enter into this. Then, in a bizarre ritual, Ahab slices open his hand, drips his blood into the tips of harpoon arrowheads, and asks his men to drink with a toast of “death to Moby Dick,” which they do. Of course, it can’t hurt that they all think that whales “thirst for human blood” — the white one in particular is “the devil himself.”

Starbuck, the sole voice of reason among the officers, is motivated by superstition as well, albeit of a more conventional kind. A devout Christian, he tells Ahab that “to seek vengeance on a dumb thing is blasphemous.” He’s afraid that Ahab has sold his soul to the almost frighteningly competent team of Japanese whalers that the captain has hired to help hunt Moby Dick. Starbuck is concerned about the money they are losing — how will the crew survive back on land without a share of profit? And yet Starbuck is also paralyzed by his religious beliefs, which won’t allow him to defy the man who commands him, even though “God has shipwrecked his soul.” He plans several times to kill Ahab, and is stayed each time by small signs of humanity and decency in the captain.

As if to drive home the point that greed and superstition are dangerous, Ismael, the only member of the crew without superstition of any kind, it seems, and even rather contemporary in his attitude — there’s “no savagery of beast that’s not infinitely outdone by man,” he says as they slaughter a whale — is the only survivor of the disastrous fate that befalls the Pequod.

This is a gorgeous version of Moby Dick, well worth seeing for the beautiful cinematography, wonderful performances, and classic story of the terror and romance of the sea.

*I watched the original three-hour, uncut version, inexplicably and delightfully rebroadcast without commercial interruption in the middle of the night. A two-hour version is now available on video.

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