Moby Dick (1956)

Moby Dick (1956)

“I do not fear Moby Dick; I fear the wrath of God.”

In 1840s New England, a sailor named Ishmael (Richard Basehart) befriends a heavily tattooed Pacific Island harpooner named Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur), and the pair join the crew of the whaling ship called the Pequod, helmed by Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) and his right hand man, Starbuck (Leo Genn) — but will Ahab’s obsessive quest to find the great white whale (Moby Dick) responsible for the loss of one of his legs lead to the dire outcomes predicted by a soothsayer (Royal Dano)?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • Fishermen
  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Harry Andrews Films
  • John Huston Films
  • Leo Genn Films
  • Orson Welles Films
  • Revenge
  • Richard Basehart Films

John Huston’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel remains an impressive distillation and expression of a literary work deemed daunting enough to merit its own website called “How to Read Moby Dick”. (Full confession: I haven’t read it – yet.) On its own merits, the film shows us a powerful tale of obsession on the high seas, with a narrative mirroring while diverging significantly from other “crazy sea captain” tales viewers may have seen, such as Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and Mister Roberts (1955). In this case, the chief mate Starbuck (Genn) recognizes the danger of allowing Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick to drive the whaling trip, yet can’t find any sympathy for his perspective; instead, he simply watches in horror as all men on board become caught up in Ahab’s lethal determination.

The film is beautifully shot (in Wales, Portugal, and Spain) with a strong sense of authenticity, both for locale and period detail:

Scenes with The Whale are impressive as well, especially considering how challenging it was to get anything workable at all on screen:

John Huston’s assertion that this was the most challenging film he ever made (which is saying a lot) rings true; one seriously worries for the safety of all while watching brutally realistic scenes at sea:

The performances across the board are excellent, with Peck especially noteworthy as Ahab (he was an inspired second choice), Genn excellent as Starbuck, Basehart appropriately peripheral as Ishmael, and von Ledebur stoically menacing as Queequeg (shout-out to make-up creator Charles E. Parker as well):

Orson Welles has a fine cameo early in the film as a pastor giving a sermon about — naturally — Jonah and the whale:

Also on view are Bernard Miles and Harry Andrews as shipmates:

… and Royal Dano as a man named Elijah who tries to warn the men about their treacherous journey:

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab
  • Leo Genn as Starbuck
  • Friedrich von Ledebur as Queequeg
  • Fine production design and attention to period detail

  • Oswald Morris’s cinematography

  • Impressive special effects

Must See?
Yes, as a good show by a master director.


  • Good Show


One thought on “Moby Dick (1956)

  1. A no-brainer must-see, as an effective adaptation (by Ray Bradbury) filmed by a master director.

    I have a feeling that I finally read ‘Moby Dick’ after it was referenced in ‘Zelig’ (in which the Woody Allen character doesn’t want to admit that he never read it… and only *begins* reading it on his deathbed). I’ve always felt that the novel had rather universal appeal because of what the whale represents.

    Although it was made by my favorite director, it’s not a film that I return to often – but I do return to it every couple of years (maybe that’s often enough). It’s as powerful each time. I once even saw it at a movie theater (at a revival cinema house in Tokyo) so I know the impact it can have on a larger screen. (It also looks rather good now in its blu-ray form.)

    The entire cast is excellent – led, of course, by Peck in one of his best performances (it’s right up there with Atticus Finch – and, honestly, I can’t say that Peck has ever been one of my favorites but it’s cool seeing him come up to the plate like this).

    All told, this is a stirring achievement on a number of levels. In the early ’90s, Bradbury finally wrote a book of reminiscence:

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