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Moby Dick

20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 110 mins . G . PAL


Of the several attempts to bring Herman Melville's Moby Dick to the screen, it is this 1956 version that probably does it best, and it's also arguably the most popular version. First published in 1851, the book tells the story in flashback style of the great white whale, Moby Dick, and Captain Ahab (played here by Gregory Peck), the one-legged old sea dog who is consumed with an unnatural desire to slay the great leviathan.

The story is the recollection of Ishmael (Richard Basehart), a young man with a desire to see the world and travel the seas. He signs on as part of Ahab's crew aboard the Pequod and is soon caught up in the camaraderie of whaling, and quickly learns that to be a part of this team, you have to run about the deck with your shirt off, whilst singing strange sea shanties about sailing on the sea and killing whales. Being a devout Christian is a bonus. He befriends the giant, Quequeg, a fellow traveler with adventure in his heart and his weapon in his hand (have harpoon will travel).

The mission begins smoothly enough, with the crew blissfully unaware that Captain Ahab (and his ivory leg) has ulterior motives. The first whale kill is standard fare (apparently - never having been to sea myself), and soon everyone is cheerfully singing more songs about cutting up whale blubber. The second kill is equally as choral, until they are joined by another ship whose captain regales Ahab with stories about the recent sightings of Moby Dick. With the victorious hunters still in their rowing boats, Ahab orders them to abandon the whale they are just about to dismember (still sounding like the New York City Men's Choir) and to get back to the Pequod immediately.

The first mate, Starbuck (Leo Genn), now convinced Ahab is a nut, profers his plan for mutiny to the second and third mates. It seems they are not interested, so he wrestles his private demons (there is no song for this part of ship life however), but before he can properly put these demons to rest, a crewman shouts that he has spotted Moby Dick (ooh, bad pun). All else is forgotten as Ahab launches his one-man attack on the whale that has stolen his soul.

"If God ever wanted to be a fish, he'd be a whale."

Director John Huston is a much loved and respected filmmaker, and this 1956 effort is rather good. He makes good use of colours and light to portray the bleakness of the locations and the open sea, and although some of the special effects are obviously miniature models, there is some clever editing to string together the great climactic battle between the whale and Ahab. The casting of Gregory Peck has been questioned at times, but he does a serviceable job of portraying the disturbed and obsessed Ahab. Peck is a somewhat subdued actor, and perhaps somebody more animated such as Charlton Heston or Laurence Olivier might have brought out more of the aggressive nature of the character, but it is the unstated determination that increasingly hints at Ahab's selfish intentions that works best.


Moby Dick is presented in a full frame aspect ratio and therefore it's not 16x9 enhanced. The original cinematic aspect ratio would have almost certainly been 1.66:1 or 1.78:1 so this does qualify as a pan and scan transfer, but as the Region 1 release is the same as the Region 4, at least we have not been shafted alone. The most unsatisfying thing about this transfer is the number of film artefacts. There are constant speckles and small black marks, and all manner of dirt including stray hairs that plague the film. Some scenes fare better than others, but none are spared.

Colours, as mentioned, are noticeably desaturated, and occasionally look almost black and white, and even allowing that this is how it was filmed, it still shows signs of age with some faded colours. This does mean much less likelihood of colour bleeding or chroma noise, and in this transfer there are no examples. Black levels are never black and struggle to even reach a deep grey. Shadow detail is limited and the overall detail is adequate at best. It is obvious that there has been no effort put into this transfer, and films that are regarded as classics deserve more attention than this.

The layer change is placed between scenes at 60:11.


If you are hoping for some sort of DVD saviour in the audio transfer, then you are going to be sorely disappointed. There is little to be said for the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, other than it is in synch and mostly audible, though the thick accents caught me out once or twice. Unfortunately, English is not a subtitle option. There are several other audio language options available if you are fluent in any of them.

Naturally being mono (which is how it was filmed), there is no separation or panning. All but the front and left front speakers are silent, and therefore low level sounds are hardly aggressive, but as most of the film is dialogue driven, this is not sorely missed. The final climactic scenes would have really benefited from a great 5.1 transfer, but given the age and the source, this was never going to happen.


The only extra is the Original Theatre Trailer that has the same specifications as the feature, though it does seem to contain even more artefacts than the main attraction, such as dirt, which I thought would not have been possible. At 3:04 it is very 1950s in look, complete with Batman style captions leaping out from the screen. You know the ones... "EXCITEMENT", "NEVER SUCH A SIGHT", and "NEVER SUCH MIGHT".


Moby Dick is rightly regarded as a classic novel about one man's relentless obsession to kill that which haunts him. Whaling may all but be a thing of the past, but this movie reminds us just how unglamorous the whole thing really was. The audio and video transfer leave a bit to be desired, even allowing for the source limitations such as age, and the extras are nowhere near as plump as the whales being hunted. The film itself is enjoyable enough, and the final scenes are as action driven as anything made today. It is a shame that some genuine effort hasn't been lavished on this film, for that would make it easier to recommend.

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      And I quote...
    "The classic story about Captain Ahab's unnatural obsession with the white whale...."
    - Terry Kemp
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          Pioneer VSX-D409
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          Sherwood SP 210W
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          standard s-video
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