Directed By: Franc Roddam
Starring: Henry Thomas, Patrick Stewart, Bruce Spence
Tag line: "The Creature All Men Feared Became One Man's Obsession"
Trivia: Gregory Peck won a Golden Globe Award for best supporting actor for his work in this film
As much as I enjoy watching John Huston’s 1956 film, Moby Dick, which features an excellent turn by Gregory Peck as Ahab, I always felt that movie failed to fully develop the story’s other characters, some of whom are just as fascinating. The 1998 television mini-series, directed by Franc Roddan, corrects this mistake. With a number of stellar performances, this version of Moby Dick fleshes out the supporting characters about as well as it does the Pequod’s revenge-crazed Captain.
Adapted from Herman Melville’s 1851 adventure novel, Moby Dick introduces us to Ishmael (Henry Thomas), a young New Yorker who comes to Massachusetts to become a sailor. With the help of his new friend, a Polynesian harpooner named Queequeg (Piripi Waretini), Ishmael is taken aboard the Pequod, a whaling vessel under the command of Captain Ahab (Patrick Stewart). Years earlier, Ahab had a run-in with an enormous white whale known as Moby Dick, an incident that cost him his leg. Bound and determined to track down Moby Dick, Ahab ignores the pleas of his second-in-command, Starbuck (Ted Levine), and sails the Pequod hundreds of miles off-course, all in an effort to destroy the creature that crippled him.
Shot on-location in Australia, Moby Dick successfully brings Melville’s tale to life, allowing us to experience 19th century Nantucket, as well as the high adventure (and many of the perils) associated with life at sea. Yet where this movie truly shines is in its performances. First and foremost, there’s Patrick Stewart, who's so convincing as Ahab that we're as swept up in his mission of vengeance as the Pequod’s crew, which he rallies to his cause by promising a Spanish Gold Doubloon to the first man who spots the white whale. Henry Thomas, better known to audiences as Elliot in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., conveys the right mix of intelligence and naiveté as Ishmael, a newcomer to the whaling industry and the movie’s narrator. Ted Levine’s Starbuck is an intense character, a man of principle who believes his captain’s personal vendetta has doomed the Pequod to a watery grave. Two actors from the Mad Max series: Bruce Spence (the Gyro Copter pilot in The Road Warrior) and Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter in Mad Max) turn up in small parts, as does Gregory Peck, the previous Captain Ahab, who portrays Father Mapple, a role Orson Welles played in the ’56 film. Finally, there’s Piripi Waretini, who brings plenty of personality to the harpooner, Queequeg, a prominent figure in the story.
Many of the key thematic elements found in Melville’s Moby Dick, such as Ahab’s obsessive, often irresponsible quest for vengeance while his crew blindly follows along, are fully explored in this movie, even more so than they were in Huston’s classic retelling. Again, I like the 1956 film, but given a choice, I’d pick this version of Moby Dick over it every single time.