Moby Dick (1956 film)

Moby Dick is a 1956 color film adaptation of Herman Melville's 1851 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.

Moby Dick
Moby dick434.jpg
1976 theatrical re-release poster
Directed byJohn Huston
Screenplay by
Based onMoby-Dick
by Herman Melville
Produced by
  • Associate producers:
  • Jack Clayton
  • Lee Katz
  • Co-producer:
  • Vaughn N. Dean
  • Producer:
  • John Huston
CinematographyOswald Morris
Edited byRussell Lloyd
Music byPhilip Sainton
Moulin Productions
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • June 27, 1956 (1956-06-27)
Running time
116 minutes
CountryUnited States
BudgetUS$ 4,500,000 or £2 million[citation needed]
Box office$5.2 million (US)[1]

The music score was written by Philip Sainton.


In 1841, a sailor named Ishmael wanders to the New England town of New Bedford, Massachusetts to sign on a whaling ship. In the inn where he is staying for the night, he is forced to share his room with a Pacific Islander and harponeer named Queequeg, whom he befriends after a tense first meeting. The next morning, the two of them hire onto a whaling ship named Pequod, which is commanded by grim Captain Ahab, who is obsessed with hunting and killing a legendary white-skinned whale named Moby Dick, who was responsible for severing Ahab's left leg. Just before their departure, Ishmael and Queequeg encounter a man named Elijah, who delivers an ominous warning about Ahab and that all but one of the crew who follow him will find their deaths on this voyage.

As the ship casts off, and for some time afterwards, Ahab remains unseen until he finally appears to align his crew to the hunt for Moby Dick and sets course for the Bikini Atoll, where the whale is said to dwell. While the crew reaps a fair bounty of oil on their journey, Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick remains foremost in his mind. When the captain of a passing ship, who recently lost his hand to the white whale, informs Ahab of Moby Dick's latest whereabouts near the coast of Madagascar, Ahab immediately breaks off a particularly successful hunt, unsettling his crew, particularly his chief mate Starbuck. Starbuck suggests to his fellow officers Stubb and Flask to wrest command of the Pequod from Ahab, which the two refuse.

As the Pequod nears the atoll, a man falls from the ship's mast into the sea and disappears. Right afterwards, the Pequod is stuck in slack water for days. Casting bones to read his future, Queequeg foresees his death and orders the ship's carpenter to make him a coffin, before he sits down to await his demise. When one of the crew prepares to cut Queequeg's skin for fun, Ishmael rises to his friend's defense, prompting Queequeg to break his death reverie and defend Ishmael. Just then, Moby Dick briefly appears before the ship and escapes before the Pequod crew can attack him.

After rowing the ship out of the becalmed area, Ahab resumes the hunt. They encounter the Rachel, another whaler from New Bedford, whose captain, Gardiner, asks Ahab to help search for his son, who was carried off by Moby Dick. Ahab refuses his aid and departs. When the Pequod hits a typhoon, Ahab uses the gale to speed the chase, endangering the ship. Starbuck decides to depose Ahab by force, but relents when in a rare humane moment Ahab reminisces about his self-destructive obsession for revenge.

Right after this conversation, a strange omen portends the fulfillment of Elijah's baleful prophecy, which Ishmael recounts to Ahab. The captain seems affected, but shakes off his doubts when Moby Dick reappears moments later. The Pequod crew sets out in their boats to bring him down. In the chaotic altercation, Moby Dick destroys Ahab's boat, but Ahab climbs onto the whale's back and stabs him until Moby Dick submerges, entangling Ahab in the harpoon lines on his back and drowning him. Instead of calling off the hunt, Starbuck orders the men to continue. Moby Dick attacks the boats, smashing them and killing the men; he then rams and sinks the Pequod before disappearing. Ishmael, the only survivor, manages to cling onto Queequeg's coffin until he is found and picked up by the Rachel.


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. Huston had long wanted to make a film of Moby-Dick, and had intended to cast his own father, actor Walter Huston as Ahab, but he had died in 1950.[2] 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 appearance to fund his own stage production of Moby Dick, in which Rod Steiger played Captain Ahab.

Gregory Peck, comparing his performances in this film and the 1998 Moby Dick miniseries, said he liked the miniseries better because it was more faithful to the novel and had a greater sense of adventure.


Statue of Captain Ahab in Youghal commemorating the filming of Moby Dick in the town

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.

The film's reference to Bikini Atoll as the home of Moby Dick is not in the novel; Ahab instead plans to engage the whale during "the Season-on-the-Line".[3] This peculiar twist seems to be a reference to the recent Castle Bravo nuclear bomb test at the atoll. This insertion by Bradbury relates to his atomic bomb short story "There Will Come Soft Rains".

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, WB would distribute Moby Dick for seven years, after which all rights would revert to the Mirisch brothers' company, Moulin Productions.[4]

The film began shooting in Wales at Fishguard and Ceibwr Bay, Fishguard at Huston's request.[5] 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.[6]

Paddy Linehan's pub, Youghal, which appeared in the film and was renamed "Moby Dick's" later

In order to create a visual effect reminiscent of old whaling prints, a black and white print was superimposed on a color print.[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 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]

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). Ninety percent of the shots of the white whale are various size miniatures filmed in a water tank in Shepperton Studios in Surrey, near 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.[clarification needed] 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 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.[12] The schooners used were Harvest King and James Postlethwaite, both from Arklow, Ireland.[13]

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 (Warner Bros. still distributed the film, corresponding to their original licensing agreement; when the agreement ended, United Artists took over the film's distribution rights. After UA was acquired by MGM in 1981, the latter studio assumed distribution and holds the film's copyright).[14] Moby Dick did not recoup its budget upon its initial release.[14]

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.[15] Nevertheless, Huston's daughter Anjelica confirmed in a 2003 Larry King Live interview that her father had "adored" Peck.[16]

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.[17]

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.[16][18]


Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "a rolling and thundering color film that is herewith devoutly recommended as one of the great motion pictures of our times ... Space does not possibly permit us to cite all the things about this film that are brilliantly done or developed, from the strange, subdued color scheme employed to the uncommon faithfulness to details of whaling that are observed."[19]

Likewise Time was laudatory of the film and rest of the cast, but felt the star ill suited: "What emerges is a brilliant film both for Melville enthusiasts and for those who have tried to read the book and lost their way. The most difficult role, Ahab, is unfortunately handed to the actor probably least able to cope with it ... But his failure is only a measure of the high success of the rest of the cast."[20]

Variety wrote, "Essentially it is a 'chase' picture with all the inherent interest thereby implied and yet not escaping the quality of sameness and repetition which often dulls the chase formula." The review also found that "Peck often seems understated and much too gentlemanly for a man supposedly consumed by insane fury."[21] Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times found the film to be "something less than really great," although it "has great moments, and is amazingly individual in its art, various phases of its drama, and notably in characters."[22] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post called it "one of the rare ones, the sort of picture people will remember and rank as one of the screen's classics ... Not only is the film immensely exciting in purely screen terms, it is a haunting philosophical study."[23] Harrison's Reports praised the "excellence of the production values" but noted, "It is not until the last few reels, where a violent battle to the death takes place between the whale and the crew, that the action becomes highly exciting. This fierce combat with the whale has been staged in thrilling fashion and is the highlight of the film, but it is not enough to compensate for the lack of excitement in the preceding reels."[24] John McCarten of The New Yorker called it "a fine, big, elementary job that misses the mystical Melville by several nautical miles but affords us an almost completely satisfactory tour of the bounding main."[25]

The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "The physical excitements of the adventure story which is the superstructure of Melville's book are all admirably done. Where Huston has failed is in suggesting the mysticism of the book and the ominous influence of Moby Dick himself. The great white whale is no 'portentous and mysterious monster ... the gliding great demon of the seas of life'; he is often, only too clearly made of plastic and electronically controlled. Without this presence and motivation much of the story loses its significance."[26] TimeOut says "the great white whale is significantly less impressive when lifting bodily out of the sea to crush the Pequod than when first glimpsed one moonlit night...a pitifully weak Starbuck. But there are marvelous things here...[such as] nearly all the whaling scenes. Lent a stout overall unity by...the intelligent adaptation (and) by color grading which gives the images the tonal quality of old whaling is often staggeringly good.;"[27]

The film has an 86% 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."[28]

Comic book adaptationEdit

Home mediaEdit

Despite being a Warner Bros. film, United Artists distributed the VHS format through MGM on November 12, 1996 as part of the latter studio's Vintage Classics lineup, which was available exclusively through Warner Home Video worldwide. Kino Lorber released the DVD version on September 15, 2015. The now-sold out limited Blu-ray was released on November 15, 2016 by Twilight Time.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956". Variety Weekly. January 2, 1957.
  2. ^ Mirisch 2008, p. 72.
  3. ^ Moby Dick, Chapter 44, "The Chart".
  4. ^ Mirisch 2008, p. 74.
  5. ^ Mirisch 2008, p. 76.
  6. ^ "Alan Villiers". Oxford Index. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  7. ^ Bossche, David David Vanden (August 18, 2020). "Pushing Low-Key Limits: A Cinematographic History of Noir and Neo-Noir". Cinea. Retrieved May 28, 2021.
  8. ^ "Moby Dick Youghal". August 14, 2010. Archived from the original on March 12, 2012. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  9. ^ "Moby Dick's Pub - Youghal, East Cork, Ireland - Chamber Members". Youghal Chamber of Tourism and Commerce. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  10. ^ a b c "The Memory: Moby Dick started life in Stoke-on-Trent". The Sentinel. December 13, 2008. Retrieved January 14, 2012.
  11. ^ "A Conversation with Gregory Peck". American Masters. Season 15. Episode 6. October 14, 1999. PBS.
  12. ^ "Morecambe Archives". Morecambe Online. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  13. ^ Forde, Frank (2000) [First published 1981]. The Long Watch (Revised ed.). Dublin: New Island Books. p. 138. ISBN 1-902602-42-0.
  14. ^ a b Mirisch 2008, p. 77.
  15. ^ Grobel, Lawrence (October 1989). The Hustons. Scribner. p. 812. ISBN 0-684190-19-2.
  16. ^ a b "Tribute to Gregory Peck". June 13, 2003. Retrieved June 26, 2014.
  17. ^ Bouzereau, Laurent (1995). "A Look Inside Jaws: From Novel to Script". Jaws: 30th Anniversary Edition DVD (2005). Universal Home Video.
  18. ^ Adrian, Wootton (December 11, 2006). "Anjelica Huston". The Guardian. Retrieved June 26, 2014.
  19. ^ Crowther, Bosley (July 5, 1956). "Screen: John Huston and Melville's White Whale". The New York Times: 18.
  20. ^ "Moby Dick." Time, 9 July 1956.
  21. ^ "Moby Dick". Variety: 6. June 27, 1956.
  22. ^ Schallert, Edwin (July 3, 1956). "'Moby Dick' Packed With Many Thrills". Los Angeles Times: 12.
  23. ^ Coe, Richard L. (July 13, 1956). "'Moby Dick' Rings Bell". The Washington Post: 36.
  24. ^ "'Moby Dick' with Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart and Leo Genn". Harrison's Reports: 102. June 30, 1956.
  25. ^ McCarten, John (July 14, 1956). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker: 83.
  26. ^ "Moby Dick". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 23 (275): 150. December 1956.
  27. ^ "Moby Dick". Time Out London.
  28. ^ "Moby Dick". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved October 7, 2021.  
  29. ^ "Dell Four Color #717". Grand Comics Database.
  30. ^ Dell Four Color #717 at the Comic Book DB (archived from the original)

External linksEdit