Sunday, August 5, 2012

DVD MiniSeries: Moby Dick 2010

The 2011 movie adaptation of Herman Melville's 1851 novel, Moby Dick, is generally well done and exciting, thus providing a new generation with the opportunity to become familiar with this classic tale. The movie which was filmed in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, contains a cast of well known actors including, William Hurt as Captain Ahab, Ethan Hawke as First Mate Starbuck, Charlie Cox and Ishmael, Eddie Marsan as Second Mate Stubb, Raoul Trujillo As Queeqeg, and Gillian Anderson as Elizabeth Ahab. Although there is some dramatic license taken with Melville's storyline, the essence of the novel remains.

Melville's lengthy novel tells the story of the whaling ship, the Pequod captained by veteran whaler, Captain Ahab. Ahab is on a mission to hunt down and destroy an enormous, white whale, named Moby Dick which destroyed his boat and bit off his right leg. Moby Dick is known by whalers as a malevolent leviathan that must be destroyed. Ahab has sworn vengeance to kill this whale no matter the cost. His incredible obsession with Moby Dick borders on madness.

The story of Ahab and his quest to destroy Moby Dick is told by Ishmael, an itinerant sailor who signs on to the Pequod, along with many others, ignorant of Ahab's real intention for the voyage. Ahab is joined on the voyage by his devout Quaker and First Mate Starbuck, Second Mate Stubbs, and Third Mate Flask. Each of these mates chose a pagan harpooner for their boats. Ahab rallies the crew to his mission of hunting the rogue white whale, although Starbuck does not wish to participate is such an undertaking. He wants to hunt whales for their oil and hopes to see his beloved Mary and Nantucket again. After a first sighting of Moby Dick, As the Pequod sails on its way to the Pacific Ocean, meeting many whaling ships including the Rachel which had an encounter with the white whale. In that deadly encounter the captain of the Rachel has lost his youngest son in one of the boats while pursuing the whale. Undeterred, Ahab sails his ship onward in search of this evil white whale. They finally sight Moby Dick and after two days of pursuit, a final, devastating confrontation occurs.

Melville's novel is in part based on real incidents that occurred in the early 1800's in the whaling industry. In 1820, the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket was rammed and sunk by a giant sperm whale off the coast of South America. Only one crew member survived, First Mate Owen Chase, who wrote about the incident. In the 1830's there was a large white whale, named Mocha Dick, was said to attack ships in a premeditated way off the island of Mocha, near Chile. Mocha Dick was normally docile until provoked by an attack. He would then defend himself in an intelligent and vigorous manner. This whale was thought to have been an old bull whale. These incidents were not the only ones recorded as whaling ships were sometimes attacked. Melville drew upon these incidents to write his novel, Moby Dick.

Considered part of the Western canon of literature, Moby Dick is both an adventure story and also a book that describes in great detail the whaling industry as it existed in the 1800s. There are numerous themes throughout the novel, including those that touch on the limits of human knowledge, revenge, religious beliefs, the role of prophecies and fate, and death. It's difficult for us today to understand 19th century society's acceptance of the butchering of whales in the thousands. Whale oil was an important commodity in American life, used to light homes.  The whale was a fearsome animal to be used by man, with little understanding of the ecological effect of whaling on ocean ecology. However,  this wasn't the only species hunted without mercy during this era. In North America, the bison, wolves and beaver suffered a similar fate as did many animals native to Africa and Australia. The mindset of taking whatever we wanted from nature without counting the cost and effect was dominant during the 1800's and early 1900's.

This newest miniseries is relatively faithful to the main elements of the storyline but there are exceptions. Elizabeth Ahab is not part of the original novel and the major character, Fedellah, a harpooner Ahab has brought on board the Pequod, is not in this movie. Nevertheless, this adaptation captures the obsession and madness that overcomes Ahab in his pursuit of Moby Dick, and his inability to turn away even when it is evident such will cost him his life. William Hurt is well cast and gives an excellent, believable performance as Ahab.  At times Hurt's Ahab is overly melodramatic, but that seems to be the fault of the script rather than the acting. Ethan Hawke is also excellent as a foil to Ahab, being the signature voice of reason against Ahab's mad intent. My favourite character was Raoul Trujillo's Queequeg, who was captivating as the cannibal, tattooed harpooner with his creepy body art and mild demeanor. Queequeg and Ishmael form a close bond that sees them through many tough times on board the Pequod.

The action scenes involving Moby Dick were realistic and remarkably well done. I was interested to see how CGI would present the whale and for the most part Moby Dick was believable, being portrayed as an enormous whale whose presence instilled fear in even the most hardened whaler. The final epic battle scene between Moby Dick and the crew of the Pequod was very well done and exciting.

Directed by Mike Barker, screen play by Nigel Williams, Moby Dick is a movie worth watching.

For a description of Mocha Dick, and an accounting of his brutal death by a whaler's harpoon read The Knickerbocker or New York Monthly Magazine, Vol. 13. I have no idea if this account is embellished fact or if it is a work of fiction.

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