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Moby Dick (1956 film)

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Title: Moby Dick (1956 film)  
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Subject: John Huston, Gregory Peck, Moby Dick (1998 miniseries), Ray Bradbury, Alan Villiers
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Moby Dick (1956 film)

Moby Dick
1976 theatrical re-release poster
Directed by John Huston
Produced by
  • Associate producers:
  • Jack Clayton
  • Lee Katz
  • Co-producer:
  • Vaughn N. Dean
  • Producer:
  • John Huston
Screenplay by
Based on
Music by Philip Sainton
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by Russell Lloyd
Moulin Productions
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • June 27, 1956 (1956-06-27)
Running time 116 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget US$ 4,500,000
Box office $5.2 million (US)[1]

Moby Dick is a 1956 film adaptation of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick. It was directed by John Huston with a screenplay by Huston and Ray Bradbury. The film starred Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, and Leo Genn.

The music score was written by Philip Sainton.


Set in 19th Century New England, the story follows the whaling ship Pequod and its crew. Leading them is Captain Ahab, who was almost killed by the "great white whale", Moby-Dick. Now he is out for revenge. With the crew that has joined him, Ahab is out to destroy the huge sea mammal, but his obsession with vengeance is so great that he cannot turn back, eventually leading to the death of Ahab and all of his crew, save his newest able seaman, Ishmael.


Peck was initially surprised to be cast as Ahab (part of the studio's agreement to fund the film was that Huston use a "name" actor as Ahab). Peck later commented that he felt Huston himself should have played Ahab. Ironically, Huston had originally intended to cast his own father, the actor Walter Huston in the role, but his father had died by the time the film was made. Peck went on to play the role of Father Mapple in the 1998 television miniseries adaptation of Melville's novel, with Patrick Stewart as Ahab.

Welles later used the salary from his cameo to fund his own stage production of Moby Dick, in which Rod Steiger played Captain Ahab.

The Pequod was portrayed by, appropriately, the Moby Dick. Built in England in 1887 as the Ryelands, the ship came into the hands of the film industry in the 50s, and was also used in Treasure Island. It was destroyed by fire in Morecambe, England in 1972.[2]

The schooners used were Harvest King and James Postlethwaite, both from Arklow, Ireland.[3]

According to Gregory Peck, between his performances in this film and the 1998 Moby Dick miniseries, he liked the miniseries better because it was more faithful to the novel.


During a meeting to discuss the screenplay, Ray Bradbury informed John Huston that regarding Melville's novel, he had "never been able to read the damned thing". According to the biography The Bradbury Chronicles, there was much tension and anger between the two men during the making of the film, allegedly due to Huston's bullying attitude and attempts to tell Bradbury how to do his job, despite Bradbury being an accomplished writer. Bradbury's novel Green Shadows, White Whale includes a fictionalized version of his writing the screenplay with John Huston in Ireland. Bradbury's short story "Banshee" is another fictionalized account of what it was like to work with Huston on this film. In the television adaptation of the story for The Ray Bradbury Theater the Huston character was played by Peter O'Toole and the Bradbury surrogate by Charles Martin Smith.

Huston had always wanted to make a film of Moby-Dick, and wanted to cast his father Walter as Ahab. Unfortunately, Walter had died in 1950, before the film was financed.[4] The film was bankrolled by brothers Walter, Harold, and Marvin Mirisch, who financed Huston's Moulin Rouge. The Mirisches made a deal with Warner Bros. in order to release the film. Under the agreement, Warners would distribute Moby Dick for seven years, after which all rights would revert to the Mirisch brothers' company, Moulin Productions.[5]

The film began shooting in Wales at Huston's request.[6] Parts of the movie were shot at the sea in front of Caniçal, a traditional whaling parish in Madeira Islands, Portugal, with real action of whaling, done by whalers of Madeira Island. It was also filmed in Las Canteras beach, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain. Captain Alan Villiers commanded the ship for the film.[7]

Many exterior scenes set in New Bedford were shot on location in Youghal, Co. Cork, Ireland. The town has a public house, originally called Linehan's and at that time owned by Paddy Linehan, whose exterior appears in the movie. It was renamed Moby Dick's shortly after filming by Mr. Linehan. It is still owned and run by the Linehan family and boasts a fine collection of photographs taken of the cast and crew during the making of the film. While there, John Huston used the bar as his headquarters to plan each day's filming. The town's harbor basin, in front of Moby Dick's bar, was used to stand in as New Bedford's harbor, and some local people appear as extras in the ship's departure scene. Youghal's nineteenth century lighthouse also appears in a scene of the Pequod putting to sea (at sunset) on her fateful voyage.[8][9]

Of the three film versions of Moby Dick made between 1926 and 1956, Huston's is the only one which is faithful to the novel and uses its original ending.

A myth that was put to rest in cinematographer Oswald Morris' autobiography, Huston, We Have A Problem, is that no full length whale models were ever built for the production. Previous accounts have claimed that as many as three 60-foot rubber "white whales" were lost at sea during filming making them "navigational hazards". In fact the titular whale shown in the film was constructed by Dunlop in Stoke-on-Trent, England.[10] Moby Dick was 75 ft long and weighed 12 tons, and required 80 drums of compressed air and a hydraulic system in order to remain afloat and operational.[10] However the artificial whale came loose from its tow-line and drifted away in a fog.[10] Peck confirmed in 1995 that he was aboard the prop.[11] According to Morris, after the prop was lost the Pequod was followed by a barge with various whale parts (hump, back, fin, tail). 90% of the shots of the white whale are various size miniatures filmed in a water tank in Shepperton Studios in London. Whales and longboat models were built by a special effects man, August Lohman, working in conjunction with art director Stephen Grimes. Studio shots also included a life-size Moby jaw and head - with working eyes. The head apparatus which could move like a rocking horse was employed when actors were in the water with the whale. Gregory Peck's last speech is delivered in the studio while riding the white whale's hump (a hole was drilled in the side of the whale so Peck could conceal his real leg).

The film's problems were further escalated by rising costs. The film went overbudget, from $2 million to around $4.4 million, which crippled Moulin Productions; Moby Dick was ultimately sold to United Artists in order to recoup some of the Mirisch brothers' debt (Warners still distributed the film, corresponding to their original licensing agreement).[12] Moby Dick did not recoup its budget upon its initial release.[12]

Peck and Huston intended to shoot Herman Melville's Typee in 1957, but the funding fell through. Not long after, the two had a falling out. According to one biography, Peck discovered to his disappointment that he had not been Huston's choice for Ahab, but in fact was thrust upon the director by the Mirisch brothers to secure financing. Peck felt Huston had deceived him into taking a part for which Peck felt he was ill-suited. Years later, the actor tried to patch up his differences with the director, but Huston, quoted in Lawrence Grobel's biography The Hustons, rebuked Peck ("It was too late to start over," said Huston) and the two never spoke to each other again.[13] Nevertheless, Huston's daughter Anjelica stated in a 2003 Larry King Live interview that her father had "adored" Peck.[14]

In the documentary accompanying the DVD marking the 30th anniversary of the film, Jaws, director Steven Spielberg states his original intention had been to introduce the Ahab-like character Quint (Robert Shaw), by showing him watching the 1956 version of the film and laughing at the inaccuracies therein. However, permission to use footage of the original film was denied by Gregory Peck as he was uncomfortable with his performance.

At the age of four, Anjelica Huston met Peck dressed as Ahab when she visited the set of her father's film. Decades later, she and Peck would meet again and become close friends with each other until the latter's death.[14][15]

Changes from the original novel

Although the film was quite faithful to the original novel, even down to the retention of Melville's original poetic dialogue, there were several slight changes:

  • In the film, Elijah's prophecy ("At sea one day, you'll smell land where there be no land, and on that day, Ahab will go to his grave, but he'll rise again within the hour. He will rise and beckon, then all, all save one shall follow.") foretells exactly what will happen to the Pequod and her crew in the film. In the novel, Elijah does not make a prophecy, but subtly hints that something will happen.[16]
  • In the film Ishmael and Queequeg meet in and sail out of New Bedford while in the novel they meet in New Bedford but sail out of Nantucket.
  • The demonic harpooneer Fedallah is totally omitted from the film. In the novel, it is the dead Fedallah who ends up lashed to the back of Moby Dick,[16] but in the film, this happens to Ahab. In the novel, Ahab is merely dragged into the water by the harpoon rope and is never seen again.
  • In the film, when the dead Ahab "beckons" to the crew (an incident caused by the whale rolling back and forth while Ahab is tied to its back), Starbuck, who had previously bitterly opposed Ahab's quest for vengeance, is so moved by the sight that he becomes like a man possessed, and orders the crew to attack Moby Dick. This leads to the death of all except Ishmael, as the whale leaps on them in a fury. In the novel, Starbuck does not participate in the final hunt and the ship and her crew are lost after the Pequod is rammed by Moby Dick. In the movie, the Pequod is also rammed by the whale, but only after Moby Dick has killed the whole crew except Ishmael. Pip, the African-American cabin boy, has stayed on board the ship at Ahab's command, and is killed when the mast falls on him after the whale rams the ship.


The film has an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus that "It may favor spectacle in place of the deeper themes in Herman Melville's novel, but John Huston's Moby Dick still makes for a grand movie adventure."[17]


  1. ^ "The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956". Variety Weekly. 2 January 1957. 
  2. ^ "Morecambe Archives". Morecambe Online. Retrieved 2013-07-13. 
  3. ^ Forde, Frank (2000) [First published 1981]. The Long Watch (Revised ed.). Dublin: New Island Books. p. 138.  
  4. ^ Mirisch, p. 72
  5. ^ Mirisch, p. 74
  6. ^ Mirisch, p. 76
  7. ^ "Alan Villiers". Oxford Index. Retrieved 2013-07-13. 
  8. ^ "Moby Dick Youghal". 14 August 2010. Retrieved 2013-07-13. 
  9. ^ "Moby Dick's Pub - Youghal, East Cork, Ireland - Chamber Members". Youghal Chamber of Tourism and Commerce. Retrieved 2013-07-13. 
  10. ^ a b c "The Memory: Moby Dick started life in Stoke-on-Trent".  
  11. ^ "A Conversation with Gregory Peck". American Masters. Season 15. Episode 6. 14 October 1999. PBS.
  12. ^ a b Mirisch, p. 77
  13. ^ Grobel, Lawrence (October 1989). The Hustons.  
  14. ^ a b "Tribute to Gregory Peck".  
  15. ^ Adrian, Wootton (11 December 2006). "Anjelica Huston".  
  16. ^ a b "The Project Gutenberg EBook of Moby Dick; or The Whale, by Herman Melville".  
  17. ^ Moby Dick (1956) at Rotten Tomatoes

Further reading

External links

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