Blu-Ray Review: MOBY DICK (1956)

Even if you haven’t read Herman Melville’s 19th century novel, who doesn’t know the story of Moby Dick? Captain Ahab and his wooden leg obsessively hunting the titular white whale off the Cape of Good Hope. Moby Dick means all kinds of things to a great many people, in the case of this 1956 adaptation, film director John Huston.

Before this lavish Technicolor adaptation, Melville’s great American novel had only been committed to celluloid once, or sort of twice; John Barrymore starred in 1926 in The Sea Beast as Ahab, which was then remade with sound in 1930 as Moby Dick, as the silent film gave way to the pre-Code Hollywood age of talkies. Huston’s version was the first screen take on the source material to truly capture the scope and majesty of Melville’s tome, and no one since in over sixty years has really tried to better it, even if certain seafaring pictures have emulated it, or allegorically science-fiction—Star Trek in particular—has worked to capture the spirit of Moby Dick on a different canvas. Perhaps nobody has tried to match Huston’s version, co-written incidentally with legendary science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, even with more advanced effects and filming techniques, because it would be hard to do a better job.

By degrees theatrical, Shakespearian, moving and thrilling, Huston’s Moby Dick remains a gorgeous piece of late Hollywood Golden Age filmmaking to this day.

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Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt VI – ”Round Perdition’s Flames’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

If we understand Nicholas Meyer’s approach to the Star Trek universe as exploring the naval tradition in space, of transposing 18th or 19th century nautical literature to an imagined star-sailing future, then The Wrath of Khan at the end of its first act lays these credentials fully on the table.

Before the inevitable first confrontation between James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh, prepared for by one and unexpected by the other, Meyer presents the villain of the piece with a choice. It is not too late to change his fate. Khan’s chief lieutenant, the younger genetically engineered Botany Bay crewman Joachim, suggests they have the means at their disposal to start a new life. “We have a ship and the means to go where we will”; in the naval sense, they are commanders of their own destiny. They have received a second chance at life, after exile from Earth and being marooned by Kirk and the Enterprise crew by the end of Space Seed. “You have proved your superior intellect, and defeated the plans of Admiral Kirk. You do not need to defeat him again”. Joachim in this sense is, quite literally, the Devil’s advocate. He believes that destiny does not drive Khan in the way the man imagines, even if his people would never abandon him or mutiny.

Meyer here, nevertheless, fully establishes Khan as a twisted version of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab from his classic 19th century novel Moby Dick. Kirk is his white whale, his obsession. It has gone beyond any sense of reason, any consideration for anything or anyone outside of his fixation. Kirk is Khan’s destiny. “He tasks me… He tasks me and I shall have him. I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I give him up…” This is, of course, a direct lift and alteration of Ahab’s famous declaration from Moby Dick about the titular whale. “I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up…” Ahab says this to Starbuck, and Joachim very much fits that template – the loyal second in command who may question his Captain but would never challenge him.

If Kirk’s destiny is to find a purpose like Ahab did his whale, Khan’s manifest destiny, and his Luciferian escape from the depths of Hell, sends him deeper and deeper into the realm of insanity.

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