From Obsession to Inspiration
In The Hustons, biographer Lawrence Grobel writes that a film version of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1956) was the picture John Huston “had most wanted to make when he first considered becoming a director.” Like the driven and haunted Captain Ahab, Huston was obsessed and for years drafted a number of writers to prepare treatments in his quest to capture the poetic essence of what he considered “Melville’s elusive quality.” Following the completion of Beat the Devil (1953), Huston determined to focus next on the Great White Whale tale, and invited his choice of collaborator, a fellow who, Grobel reports, “had written him fan letters, sent him copies of his books, asked to work with him,” to come join him in Ireland. Writer Ray Bradbury, whose previous big screen credits to date were other writers’ 1953 adaptations of his stories Atomic Monster (becoming It Came from Outer Space) and The Fog Horn (becoming The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), took the plunge, and the resulting personality-clashing partnership of fantasy master and cinematic auteur wrestling with a literary masterpiece itself became the stuff of Hollywood legend. Bradbury would later recall, “We were way out over our heads. He didn’t know where we wanted to go. We were both children, hoping somehow to blunder through.” But obsession, joined with craft and inspiration, drove both men to the finish line of the weather-disrupted, logistics-complicated, nine-month $4.5-million production, shot off the coasts of Ireland, Wales and Portugal, with harbor scenes lensed at Youghal, Ireland, plus two months of work inside studios in England, and the final scenes of Ahab (Gregory Peck) roped to his mammoth antagonist and Ishmael (Richard Basehart) surviving the climactic ordeal atop Queequeg’s coffin filmed in the Canary Islands. After months of Huston’s browbeating, Bradbury caught the fever after a Huston jibe that triggered something within him. The director told Bradbury that Jack Warner wanted to add a love interest for Ahab to “sex the script up a bit.” Grobel chronicles that the writer awoke one morning, “looked in the mirror, and said ‘I am Herman Melville!’ And over the next eight hours he rewrote the last third of the script. ‘The ghost of Melville was in me,’ he said. ‘I ran across London to Huston’s hotel and I threw the script at him. ‘There! I think that’s it!’ And he read it and said, ‘Jesus Christ, Ray! This is it. This is the way we’ll shoot the ending.’ My inspiration was to have Moby Dick take Ahab down and wind him in the coiled ropes and bring him up among the harpoons on this great white bier, this great cortege, this funeral at sea. Then we see, ‘My God, these two should be together through eternity, shouldn’t they – Ahab and the white whale.’ It’s not in the book, but I do believe that Melville would have approved.” Through trial and error with capitals T and E, the thrillingly memorable, award-winning Moby Dick, also starring Leo Genn (Starbuck), Orson Welles (Father Mapple), James Robertson Justice (Captain Boomer), Harry Andrews (Stubb), Bernard Miles (The Manxman), Friedrich von Ledebur (Queequeg) and Royal Dano (Elijah) emerges from the stormy seas of its writing and filming onto Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray November 15. Preorders open this Wednesday, November 2. And to commemorate the color scheme that Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris intended for moviegoers 60 years ago, its look will differ dramatically from previous home video incarnations. TT’s resident historian essayist Julie Kirgo offers details tomorrow.