By Joan Amenn
Ask any high school American Literature major what the most challenging book was on their required reading list and chances are, they’ll reply “Moby Dick.” No wonder then that the film version was not exactly a doggy paddle to adapt either. Director John Huston was no doubt attracted to the male centric story of revenge but the way screenwriter (and famous science fiction author) Ray Bradbury tells it, it seems more a cautionary tale of the consequences of messing with Mother Nature.
Suggesting that the whale itself was perhaps not male but female might be heresy (Mabel Dick?) but recognizing it as an avatar for the greater forces of Nature in a feminine sense lends a certainly interesting take to the book and the film. Ahab (Gregory Peck) is enraged by a creature he cannot dominate and worse yet, one that has drawn first blood in denying him his mobility. Surely, in an era of history where women were submissive to men there can be a case made that Ahab’s disproportionate rage is in part due to not being able to subdue the feminine power of the sea. Other films have certainly tapped into this idea, such as “Jaws 3” (1983) but that was obviously a very reductive sequel to Stephen Spielberg’s version of Melville’s novel.
While Huston was set on telling the great American classic as an epic bursting with testosterone, Orson Welles, of all people, gave a performance as Father Mapple that was incredible for its subtlety. In his sermon, he preaches about the importance of being accepting and submissive to God’s will. This would be the behavior men of the time period would expect of women, obviously. If Nature is synonymous with God, then Ahab is clearly defying Her in hunting one of her creatures for revenge. But he is not the only misguided male onboard the Pequod. Bradbury has Starbuck (Leo Gunn) say that whale hunting is a holy pursuit because it serves to better the lives of their fellow men by providing fuel. His myopic attempt at justifying his desire for material gain (if you survived the experience, whale hunting could be profitable) clearly misses the point that God made humanity to coexist with Her other creations, not to slaughter them.
Of course, Ishmael (Richard Basehart) is swept up in all the excitement of whale hunting but unlike his shipmates seems to value sharing the experience with his new friend Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur) over the profit to be made. In this he is also rather passive and accepting, even letting the harpooner chose which ship they would sail on together in New Bedford (on second thought, he might have been a little less permissive on this point.) In the end, Mother Nature unleashes her wrath on the small ambitions for wealth and huge obsession for retribution that the good ship Pequod carries. As much as the film attempts to portray the feminine as a specific set of behaviors, the destructive force of the whale proves that premise to be false. The feminine can be equal to if not greater than any masculine strength of will, or, to paraphrase a very old television commercial, “it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature!”