I seem to be one of the very few people who read the book and actually liked it. Even Ray Bradbury, who wrote the script with director John Huston, admitted he’d “never been able to read the damn thing.” Most people complain about all the whaling lore that they feel pad out the book; I thought all that was fascinating.
For some reason I had never seen this until last night. I’d seen a few scenes, but I guess I’d dismissed it, partly because I thought the book was unfilmable and partly because I thought Gregory Peck was all wrong for the part of Ahab. Turns out that even Peck agreed with me, but now that I’ve seen it I don’t think he was all that bad. But it’s true he wasn’t the best choice, and he was attached to the project simply because Warner Brothers insisted on a “name” actor in the part. I’ve got two suggestions on who would have been better. First, Orson Welles, who appears as a whaling preacher who sermonizes from a pulpit shaped like the bow of a ship. But even better would have been the director himself, John Huston. That craggy, caved-in face would have worked very well.
What surprised me was how effective the whaling scenes were, particularly the final fight with the great white whale. The legend has it that it was all shot on the open sea, and while some of it was, most was done in the studios back in England, with models ranging up to 60 feet. Yes, they did lose part of a phony whale in the sea, but not the three or four some people claimed.
There’s no question that you can see they worked with models, both of parts of the whale and the little rowboats, but with good choices of angles and most of all, smart cutting, I found it easy to suspend my disbelief. I’m sure today’s audiences would laugh at it, but it was damn effective for its time. Today, of course, it would be an easy CGI shoot, and exponentially more realistic. I wondered briefly if a remake would be possible, and then thought of the bloody scenes of actual whales. These days we don’t see whales as great raging beasts (which they are not, but quite capable of killing a dozen men purely by accident), but as big, cuddly, almost sacred things. Remember the uproar when a native tribe, the Makah, wanted to kill one damn whale off the coast of Washington? Nobody would come see a remake.