Sunday, 6 September 2009

The White Whale Rises Still

BLUE TURNED TO GREY and rain threatened. I made a mug of milky coffee and switched on the television. I usually, early in the morning, have a look at the overnight news headlines on the BBC or Sky. However, I'd left the channel setting at ITV3 when I went to bed last night and that's what came up on the screen. Before I could switch, I saw Up Next: Moby Dick.

John Huston's film of Herman Melville's novel was released in 1956. That year, my father took me to see the movie at the Playhouse theatre in Hamilton, Bermuda. I'd have been all of six years old. I did not see many movies at the Playhouse as a boy because it was pulled down and an ugly office block built on the site at the top of Queen Street. I saw 20,000 Leagues under the Sea there, again with my father, and Lady and the Tramp. The older of my sisters came along to Lady and the Tramp.

Those three films are the earliest that I recall, and they all made a big impression on me. I liked everything about Lady and the Tramp: the music, the story, the spaniel. We had a spaniel at home. I've not seen that film all the way through since the 1950s, and don't wish to. The snippets I've come across haven't moved me at all, and I no longer like the music.

20,000 Leagues under the Sea is memorable for the giant squid squeezing the Nautilus submarine. I just loved that bit. I liked Captain Nemo, even if he was supposed to be evil. This is a film I've seen a number of times over the years and I never tire of it. Nowadays, I'm not so sure that I'd even part company with Nemo on his political views. James Mason seemed perfect in the role; I was disappointed to find him a bit sappy in Journey to the Centre of the Earth a few years later.

Moby Dick has not come up in television reruns very often, though three times this year. I saw a remake, a mini-series, starring Patrick Stewart, a few years ago which left me cold. Not because Stewart failed in any way, but, for me, Gregory Peck was, is and always will be Captain Ahab. He is as attached to my mind as securely as Ahab was stapled and lashed to the whale at the end of the movie. If you say the words "Moby Dick" to me, in a cinematic sense, of course, I immediately see Peck under all those ropes while a rather limber whale takes aim at the Pequod. He seems to be crucified there. Is that the reward for having only one aim in life? Death.

I've never read Herman Melville's books, and I am probably at the right stage to do it now. I know Moby Dick has a good deal about the whaling industry in it. The religious symbolism would interest me too; it's not just Christian sects that are woven into the story. I imagine that Melville, perhaps unintentionally, shows us the psychological make-up of some strong characters. And there are references to slavery.

The book was first published, in England, in 1851. So I gather Melville was writing it in the few years before that date. He was at sea in the early 1840s, I believe. The 1840s were a time of religious turmoil, with sects spawning breakaway sects. Even people like Joseph Smith, with little formal education, thought and spoke in terms that seem religious to me now. There was some obsession with religion. Might guilt have finally set in for slavery, if not for the slaughter of the Native American peoples? And, apparently, that sort of thing, on the printed page, sold.

So, what was Moby Dick? I dare say that one can call the whale a great many things. And the terrible white whale lives on, with Captain Ahabs rotting under ropes, and countless drowned bodies scattered among driftwood in the high seas. The object of one's revenge, an obsession. One might call it Afghanistan in 2009.


Barry said...

Fred is barking mad, too:

suz said...

you intrigue me! i've never read it or seen any of the movies, although ricardo montalban's moby dick monologue toward the end of the 'wrath of khan' mesmerizes me.
perhaps the time has come.