Moby Dick (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – “Call me Ishmael.” John Huston’s 1956 film of Herman Melville’s whaling drama turned epic odyssey, a classic of American literature and a staple of high school and college literature courses, remains the most famous screen version of the novel. Gregory Peck plays the obsessed Captain Ahab, who lost his leg to “the great white whale” and is determined to hunt it down, and Richard Basehart is Ishmael, the young deck hand who narrates the tale. Huston gravitated toward literary adaptations throughout his career and Moby Dick was a personal project for Huston. He collaborated with Ray Bradbury on the screenplay—it was the celebrated author’s first feature screenplay—and remained faithful to language (Bradbury helps adapt the poetry of Melville’s prose to the spoken word of a script) and to the story with minor changes.
Peck plays Ahab with a stiff, emotionally unreadable determination, Orson Welles (who had directed his own stage adaptation of the novel) has a superb supporting role as Father Mapple, giving a sermon filled with whaling references in a pulpit designed like the prow of a ship, and Leo Genn is first mate Starbuck, who tries to resist Ahab’s obsessive drive. The film was not well received in 1956, much of the criticism leveled at Peck, but his stylized performance is more interesting 60 years later. Huston’s treatment is equally compelling. He shot much of the film on the sea with a full-sized ship and a massive model for the whale and devoted himself to recreating the physical labor of whaling in the 19th century with almost documentary-like detail. He also worked with cinematographer Oswald Morris to give the film a desaturated color palette, a sepia quality that helps evoke the era. It adds to the film’s mythic quality.
“Gregory Peck makes that Hemingway kind of love to Joan Bennett in The Macomber Affair! After the biggest game of all – a woman! On the hunt he took two things as they came – the charge of a snarling lion – the fury of a fear-crazed coward – the lips of a love-crazed woman – cruelty and yearning – of such things was their love made.” So reads the original advertising concocted by the promotions department of United Artist. But overheated hype aside, The Macomber Affair, based on the short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway, is a serious adult drama and is still considered by most Hemingway aficionados as one of the best screen adaptation of the oft-filmed author’s work.
The 1947 drama The Macomber Affair stars Gregory Peck as Robert Wilson, a down-on-his-luck American big-game hunter in Nairobi hired to lead a rich American couple on a trophy hunt. As the film opens he’s accompanying Margo Macomber (Joan Bennett) back from the savanna. Also on the plane is her husband’s corpse. The story of their fateful safari spins out in flashback as the authorities push the stoic Robert for the details: the failing marriage and spiteful behavior beneath the facade of a happy vacation for Margo and husband Francis (Robert Preston), the growing attraction between Robert and Margo, the determination of Francis to find a renewed sense of strength and confidence on the hunt. Classic Hemingway themes and macho values played out on the author’s favorite field of battle: man against nature.
In the 1952 adventure The World In His Arms, Gregory Peck is a boisterous sea captain in the Pacific Coast, circa 1850, who has a plan to buy Alaska from the Russians… if they don’t kill him first.
It’s not the kind of role that we immediately associate with Peck. He’s the man of principle, the dedicated father, the unbendingly loyal leader, protective and modest and unyielding in face of injustice, and still quite charming under all that poised decency. That’s the man we know from films ranging from The Yearling to Twelve O’Clock High to The Big Country to To Kill a Mockingbird. He could be stiff but his stiffness was part of the charm.
But he was also a studio star who made his share of westerns, war films, adventures and romantic comedies, and he could put that smile and poise to work as a man of action with the best of them. “The World in His Arms,” adapted from the Rex Beach novel by Borden Chase (Red River) and produced by Aaron Rosenburg, Universal’s man for dynamic outdoor adventure, lets Peck be the maverick entrepreneur in the wild far west of the Barbary Coast and the Bering Straight. The captain of a fast ship and a lovably roughneck crew that he gives free reign to let loose in their San Francisco shore leave between trips, he’s “the Man From Boston,” the nickname that the Russians have given him (along with the brand of “pirate”) for his wildcatting success in their waters. He leaps into bar brawls, arm wrestles Anthony Quinn and romances Ann Blyth, Hollywood’s tiny porcelain doll of a leading lady playing a pampered Russian countess who comes alive in Peck’s big arms.
The story is terrific Hollywood hockum, with the bad boy Peck as the spirit of American can-do action and a model of respect for the natural balance—he’s not just the most successful seal trapper on the West Coast, he’s also a proponent of responsible thinning of the seal herds, unlike the Russians who are decimating the population—and this two-fisted adventurer is the perfect mate to bring the Russian aristocrat into the great American melting pot.