Review: Moby Dick (1956, Directed by John Huston)

This is a review of the 1956 film, directed by John Huston.

by Charlotte Dovey
J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“The Slave Ship”
Moby Dick shows that slavery leads to complete destruction; pursuing it is an act of suicide, and of homicide, as seen in Turner’s famous painting.

In turning Moby Dick into a film, John Huston tackled a project that was not merely enormous.  Rather, it was an attempt to turn the infinite something that encapsulates a philosophical treatise of the highest order, thinly veiled as a non-plot-driven allegorical novel, into the very finite – a film that runs just under two hours – and into an essentially plot-driven snippet.  Yet, this film is not an attempt to explain a monumental masterpiece in sound-bites or rather purile slideshow (or worse, a film that is made simply to make money, irrespectively of bad acting, computer generated graphics rather than real artwork and craft, and idiotic dialogue that assumes that all viewers are uneducated dolts who need every aspect of the plot and character explained to them explicitly).  This film does its best to encapsulate one aspect of the novel by focusing upon a simple plot that merely acts as a skeleton for Melville’s philosophical treatise.  Huston’s film version relies upon on good acting and cinematography rather than trying to explain the book’s multi-layered, even infinite, meanings.  The film does this by leaving out most of the book. 

Therefore, the film omits (except perhaps, with the merest intimations of these topics) at least the following, though this list is itself very abbreviated (as I comment more at the end):

Suicide.  While the film hints in the most threadbare manner that Ahab may be suicidal, it leaves out that Ishmael is also suicidal.  It is true that in the opening sequence Ishmael admits to being grim and spleenful, and having a desire if not a propensity to knock people’s hats off (instigating others to murder him), but Huston leaves out that Ishmael compares himself with Cato, who “fell on his sword.”  In the novel, Ishmael chose, rather than suicide by sword, to go to sea as “substitute” for “pistol and ball.”  Melville compares different types of suicides, that of Ishmael with that Ahab.  Ahab’s is inscrutable, mad, malevolent, and simultaneously homicidal – his manner of suicide as Captain of a doomed ship also condemns his crew to death.   But his motives and circumstances are antithetical to Ishmael’s, whose search for meaning gives meaning to his life (I discuss this more below).  Ishmael commences by lodging in the Spouter Inn, owned by Peter Coffin, and ultimately is saved by Queequeg’s own coffin.  Queequeg is a Christ-figure who sacrifices himself for Ishmael and is his salvation.  By contrast to all of these manners of suicide, Pip, a black slave boy, goes mad when he falls into the ocean because he is overwhelmed.  Both Pip and Ahab go mad because they are confronted with the enormity of a search for meaning and truth in the vastness of the ocean (universe) – the whale does not just symbolize the 19th Century slave trade, but paradoxically it also symbolizes God and universal truth.  It also represents Nature, something that, in itself, is essentially meaningless; we, as thinking creatures, imbue meaning to it.  Huston leaves out Pip’s suicide, as well as Ishmael’s and Queequeg’s, and the rest of the crew’s, and instead depicts Pip’s death as one in which he is crushed by a falling mast.  Huston probably did this because many viewers would not want to regard a hero, or a small slave boy, as a suicide, but it would be more acceptable to depict the megalomaniac antihero/villain Ahab as such.

Homosexuality.  Sea voyages were very long, as Melville knew as an ex-seaman.  As such, the seamen satisfy their sexual needs with each other.  One of the most important themes of this book is the love between Queequeg and Ishmael, who meet by sharing a bed in a “matrimonial sort of style” (Chapter IV) and end up as “man and wife” and a “cosy, loving pair” (Chapter X).  If anyone doubts my interpretation of this, see the most obvious reference, Chapter XCIV, A Squeeze of the Hand – to say that it is graphic is an understatementConsider also that Moby Dick is a sperm whale that the seamen are all chasing, and Ahab is determined to stab Moby Dick to death with his spear because he is enraged that the whale had dismembered him (it is ambiguous whether Ahab merely lost his leg or was otherwise emasculated), he who had a much younger wife.  On their voyage, the crew run into the ship called The Virgin whose crew “seemed quite eager to pay their respects” to that of the Pequod, though were ignorant of the existence of Moby Dick.  Unsurprisingly, the crew of the Pequod shun The Virgin.  (See Chapter LXXXI.)  Obviously, in 1956, it would have been unacceptable, even criminal, to include overt sexual jokes or homosexual references in a film, so that certainly would have been cut.

Political allegory.  This is only fleetingly hinted out through the plot structure.  Melville specifically discusses Hobbes’s Leviathan, and references Hobbes’s belief that rulers (and this would include Ship’s Captains) can compel those under them to act according to their laws.  Hobbes thought of governance as a social contract; under certain circumstances violating that contract would render his rule void or null.  This is hinted at in Huston’s film when Starbuck tries to instigate the other officers to assume control due to not only Ahab’s madness but also his refusal to carry out his contractual obligations to the ship’s stakeholders.  In the film, Ahab says that there is “One God over the Earth and one Captain over the Pequod,” referencing Hobbes’s idea that a ruler’s power stems from God’s divine command.  Huston leaves out, however, most of Moby Dick’s references Plato’s and Aristotle’s arguments about the inherent flaws in democracy.

Metaphysics and the nature of substance and causation.  From my point of view, this is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book that the film leaves out almost completely.  Chapter XXXV, The Masthead, is one of the most important – and beautiful – in the novel.  Philosophical reveries, and inquires, are that of a voyage, one that lulls the philosopher into a discourse about the very nature of the universe, and of its substance.  Like Parmenides’s monism, and later Spinoza’s pantheism (there is only one substance, it is God, that is comprised of everything in the universe), Melville comments on the idea there is only one thing (one substance).  Things are distinct, individuated, or separate by virtue of nothing, so there is only one thing in truth, only one substance. Melville references monism and pantheism throughout the story, as well as substance dualism, the idea that mind and body are distinct substances, particularly that of Descartes: “There is no life in thee, now, except… from the inscrutable tides of God.  But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror.  Over Descartian vortices you hover.  And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.  Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”  This is also seen in the next item in this list; that monism can apply to persons – what we take as separateness (individual identities) is only appearance and not Truth – that we are all connected as a single “substance” – Humanity.  It also shows that in the face of death (or other practical affairs) that philosophical reverie disappears like a puff of smoke…  Or that such impracticality can destroy us…  (And not engaging with it can likewise destroy us…)  And, as Hume suggested, there is no necessary causal connection between two events, but rather it could be that x simply follows y without there being any necessary causal connection between x and y and cause may be merely a matter of mental association based upon experience.  We explain and predict with likelihood rather than by any inherent connection.  The film also completely removes reference to Aristotelean taxonomies, leaving nothing of the number of chapters in which Melville discusses complications in classifications – Cetology, The Fountain, The Tail, Schools and Schoolmasters, Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, Heads or Tails.

The nature of personal identity.  In the chapter entitled The Monkeyrope (XLLII), Melville shows us that Queequeg and Ishmael are connected not only as man and wife (see above on homosexuality) but also in terms of physical connection, tied together with a rope, where if one falls so does the other.  As a man and wife tie a metaphysical knot that binds them spiritually, they also tie together their fortunes and physical lives.  They become one.  This also beacons the larger metaphysical question of whether all of humanity is one; we live by common laws to all humans and much as man and wife, we must live together – if a nation fails, everyone in that nation fails.  In Melville’s political context, this means that if we, as a nation, allow slavery, we are all culpable for that slavery.

Free will and Determinism.  If everything in nature has a cause that produces an effect, and if everything has an essential nature or set of defining properties, it is not clear that we have any free will; as a bird has a nature that defines it and governs its actions, so do humans.  Yet, we think that an essential property of humans is as rational animals (even if humans do not act rationally) – they are given the ability to reason.  Some, such as Kant, however, think that acting according to reason is to act in accordance with moral law, and that we are only free when we act accordingly, meaning that what we are free to do is quite limited – otherwise, we are enslaved by our passions or instincts (as Plato also suggested in The Republic).  See more below.  Huston’s film only occassionally hints at this theme by including a line or two from some of the chapters, such as The Masthead (see above).

Frederic Edwin Church [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Aurora Borealis”
I think this painting depicts the chapter The Candles in Moby Dick well; it has a surrealist quality and gives the impression that one is looking at the universe, infinity, when one is looking at the vast expanse of sea. This painting also reminds me of Thales’s claim that water is the only substance; the images blur together and become almost a single mass.

Religious symbolism.  The religious symbolism is hinted at in the film, and it does make reference to Christians and “heathens.”  It does merely hint that Melville’s book undermines dogmas and stereotypes – the Noble Savage (see above on political allegory) is also the Christ figure, where the Christians in the novel are predominately motivated by acquiring money, regardless of the unethical means that are required to do so.  However, the film does not address how Melville’s book also inverts traditional Christian symbols, making white a color signifying death and moral decay, rather than one of spiritual purity.  It leaves out almost entirely Chapter XLII, The Whiteness of the Whale, where Melville seems to hint that what the Christians regard as their spiritual purity is actually a moral retrogression.  He also, however, renders this same idea ambiguous as he sometimes connects the Christian Holy Trinity with Plato’s line analogy (see more below).  He depicts the whale with God-like attributes of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, but he is simultaneously a demonic figure, as well as a mere dumb brute, rendering the religious allegory ambiguous.  Drawing these themes out in the film would have convoluted the plot structure, so Huston seems to have merely made reference to them instead and focused on Ahab’s search for the whale.  Huston does draw attention to the religious allegory, however, in the tempest that follows after Ahab refuses to help the Captain of the Rachel; in the film, Huston draws out that Ahab calls the storm “heaven sent” while Starbuck remarks that it was sent by heaven to destroy them…

Slavery.  The dichotomy between free will and determinism reflects not only a metaphysical problem of free will, but also autonomy and self-ownership in a legal, political, and personal sense.  How much are we determined by our own natures?  We are, after all, subject to the laws of the natural world, our own physical, mental, and emotional limitations, and according to some, such as Kant, we are owned by God, not self-owned.  Melville contrasts this with the 19th Century institution of slavery, an unjust, even evil, systemization of denying people their humanity.  Moby Dick shows us what happens to a nation that pursues such a course – national suicide.  And yet, metaphysically, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that… everyone else is one way or other served in much the same way – either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is,” (Chapter I, Loomings) echoing Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, where one gains self-consciousness only through opposition to another consciousness, establishing a self-other power dynamic.  Melville sets these issues beside each other, underlying the essential problem of establishing definitive answers to any of the larger questions.

Substance Dualism.  This is seen, for example, in Chapter CVII, The Carpenter.  The carpenter addresses men’s bodies merely as bodies, or physical entities devoid of mental properties and soul, commenting on Cartesian substance dualism.  See also above, the nature of substance.

Plato’s line and cave analogies: Man’s search for Truth.  Melville evokes Plato’s cave analogy in The Republic.  Paradoxically, this means that they have facility for seeing the truth where others cannot, despite the fact that neither has full mental capacity and do not act autonomously.  Ahab, like King Lear who finds truth only when he goes mad, paradoxically, was aware of this when he says: 

            “All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks.  But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.  If man will strike, strike through the mask!  How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?  To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.  Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond.  But ‘tis enough.  He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.  That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.  Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” (Chapter XXXVI, The Quarter-Deck)

In Huston’s film, this speech is somewhat abbreviated, though it is one that Huston focuses on.  He does not, however, draw out the ambiguities of Melville’s use of this.  In the allegory of the cave, Plato describes surface appearances that are not based upon abstract knowledge (he had a very specific understanding of what qualified as knowledge).  Plato describes lack of knowledge (in his sense) as equivalent to looking at the world in a darkened cave, where the figures one sees are like pasteboard masks.  One only gains knowledge by leaving that cave and venturing out into the sun.  Ahab, rather than establishing truth by seeking knowledge and coming into the light, sought to overcome those masks through destruction.  The white whale symbolizes omniscience, truth, and the fundamentals of nature (and scientific knowledge, including mathematics) itself.  Rather than seek it to learn, to heal, he sought to destroy it – thereby obliterating abstract thought, thus also destroying himself.

It does not matter to Ahab if the sun/God/universal truth holds infinite meaning, or if there is no meaning at all.  The fact that it is unknowable is enough to render Ahab’s life meaningless except for what meaning there is in his hate and his search for revenge against his maker.  Like Frankenstein’s creature, Ahab was, in part, created by his enemy, the whale in his case, when it created a twisted, disfigured life that ought not to have lived.  Like Frankenstein’s Creature, Ahab was also resurrected in a new form by that which he hated – he hated himself as he was, and that which made him what he was, and was therefore both suicidal and homicidal.  Ishmael, by contrast, sought truth and meaning.  He was also resurrected after losing his crew to the whale, but in their death, he found meaning in life, not pointless hatred or rage.  Moby Dick suggests that the meaning of life and death is beyond our grasp, and this may be enough to render life meaningless.  It also tells us, paradoxically, that there may be no meaning at all to life and death, other than what we give it. 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket”
This is the way I imagine the painting in The Spouter Inn.

Representation/Art.  Plato argued that representation and art were not effective means to arriving at Truth.  Melville overturns this notion in several places in the novel, though always with his usual measure of ambiguity.  Most notably he introduces this in The Spouter Inn where he describes the painting hanging there:  “A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted.  Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvelous painting meant.” (Chapter III, The Spouter Inn)  Ishmael’s journey to discover this (Truth) can be found in this painting, and even before his journey the truth of it was known to him.  (See also the chapters Monstrous Pictures of Whales, Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and Of Whales in Paint, in Teeth, etc.)  Sadly, Huston’s film neglects the problematic nature of this theme and instead of this metaphysical mess of an abstract painting installs in The Spouter Inn a less complicated, traditional, figurative painting of a whaling voyage.

In John Huston’s film, the viewer must interpolate, or else only get the barest-bones summary of a simple plot.  She interpolates only if she has understood the book’s meaning, but many viewers would not have read the book, and some of those viewers may not understood it if they did read it – it requires multiple readings, as well as reading and rereading source texts.  This leaves open the following:

What would a film that did not leave out the bulk of the novel look like?

John Huston used a number of effective devices to add a surrealistic quality; very close-up shots of various objects (arms, spears, etc) to abstract them somewhat.  He also employs repetitive and ominous noises, such as Ahab’s footsteps overhead, and lighting that emphasizes darkness, as well as motion that is almost blurred, giving the action an indistinctiveness.  Any film that takes on the novel Moby Dick, rather than just its most bare-bones plot, benefits from this abstraction and ambiguity, even surrealism.

Such a film would not follow a linear plot structure.  It would begin, as does the novel, with Ishmael going to sea, and end with his salvation, and it would contain Ahab’s mission to kill the white whale.  It would include Ishmael’s limited point of view.  However, shortly after the story begins, it would take on a God-like, omniscient vision of the universe and no longer follow Ishmael’s narration (for Ishmael could not have known what happens in the Captain’s cabin, for example, or if a whale could perform simultaneous equations, one from each eye).  A film that follows such a structure may be one that has a series of seemingly disconnected segments, several on the nature of causality, more on substance dualism, discourses on the nature of free will and determinism, the social contract, the nature of the mind and knowledge, Plato’s cave and line analogies, Plato and Aristotle on the evils and benefits of democracy and benevolent monarchy or oligarchy, and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  It must also find a way to adequately address the nature of morality – that may have little to do with 19th Century American or European Christian notions of morality, not to mention Puritanism – and specifically morality involving sex.  It would also have to find a way to include a discourse on everything else that concerns man, God, and the natural world.

Additionally, any film (or list of film omissions, as I have focused on here) that included the bulk of the book’s contents would be immensely long – a lifetime or longer…  Perhaps even a nation’s lifetime…  Or a universe’s.

Augustus Burnham Shute [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick

© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica

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