John Huston is touched with an everlasting itch for things remote. It explains why his direction has taken him far and wide through time and history. His adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, marks another exploration of the world and space around him. He is not content to sit on the shore, and as he dives deep into the waves of madness, he hopes to spear himself a white whale and some real experience with the creatures of the deep that taunted Melville’s characters so much. In his own conquest to create an adaptation, Huston begins to exhibit the fanaticism exuded by the mighty Captain Ahab, here brought to life by Gregory Peck.
His literal, on-screen obsession with killing the cursed great beast of the sea makes for a nice parable and parallel to that of Huston’s journey through Hollywood. He was, himself, a white whale. His ability to craft so many classics throughout such a rich and varied career is remarkable. Many directors, before and after his time, have aspired to be this culturally relevant, and for so long. That is their white whale, and while Huston may inherit some of those characteristics for others, he is no stranger to the journey of Captain Ahab. Nor are the producers and production crews of Hollywood, who’s third attempt at capturing the white whale in all his metaphorical glory brought in Ray Bradbury as script-writer, Huston as director, and an all-star cast of notable names.
It is another case of Hollywood dropping the ball, despite the odds being stacked in their favour. Once again, they cannot mount the men necessary to rise to this challenge. Even with great writers and greater storytellers at the helm of Moby Dick, it is stark and worrying that all Huston can create is an oddly-shot sailor story. Grimy and dirty, he captures the iconography of a washed-up band of crewmates rather well, but while they sit around in their dives and sing of times gone by, Huston forgets to include any emotional attachment to them. He also makes the mistake of keeping us close to these characters. So close, in fact, that many of the actions of the actors are cut off of the screen. Dragged into dance, the camera is so close that we only get fractured notes of how the room is acting, rather than how it comes together as a scene.
Such is the issue that strikes up in the moments of climax, too. Melville’s titular whale does not look all that magnificent. It is as though Ahab (who at least is performed well by Peck) is chasing after some non-descript aquatic life-form, rather than a beast worthy of obsession. Damp and dangerous times aboard the Pequod never come to life as well as they should. That parallel and disparity between man and beast are performed well, at least, it is when Huston can hone his direction with clarity and confidence. It is worrying how little that occurs, but at least his always shaking camera and unfocused cuts and motions make the seasickness all the more real.