Before there was ‘Jaws,’ there was ‘Moby Dick’

Mix together a classic novel by Herman Melville, an exceptional performance by Gregory Peck, a gigantic white whale and what do you get? An exciting and interesting film by John Huston, “Moby Dick.” The film begins, as does the novel, with one of the most used Jeopardy questions, “Call me Ishmael.”

The movie is actually a study of the adventures of Ishmael, played by Richard Basehart, as he becomes a novice whaler on the Pequod. Ishmael meets all the members of the ship’s crew and shares a room with the ship’s harpooner, Queequeg, a tattooed man with odd spiritual beliefs. While on the ship, Ishmael learns of the mysterious Captain Ahab, played by Gregory Peck. Ahab had lost his leg to Moby Dick, the huge white sperm whale that he is searching for. As the search becomes an obsession with Ahab, the lives of everyone on board are in danger.

I found this film amazing, considering it was made long before computer-generated imagery was invented. All the wonderful special effects – the storm at sea, the whaling boat pursuing a herd of whales and the climatic battle with Moby Dick – were done in studio with old-fashioned special effects. Many of the effect are so well done that the viewer is easily drawn into the believability of the film. Although the film is advertised as a “Technicolor” film, the viewer will be surprised with the intentional black-and-white look imposed by director, John Huston.

The screenwriter for the film, chosen and recruited by director John Huston, was the extremely talented and popular science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Besides being a well-known published author for “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man,” Bradbury was an accomplished television writer and screenplay writer. I thought Bradbury did a wonderful job of carving out the pieces of “Moby Dick” (no pun intended) that seemed to drag in the book. He has, however, integrated much of the narrative into the visual of the film. What could take twenty pages to describe, Bradbury and Huston show in a minute or two of the film. Thanks to them both.

Many of the supporting roles are also well done: Leo Genn, a great British character actor as Starbuck, Royal Dano as the somewhat freaky Elijah (right, like the one in the Bible), and Friedrich von Ledebur as Queequeg. Of course, this wouldn’t be the film it is without a wonderful performance, completely out of his type, by Gregory Peck.

The film was produced before the rating system, but I would imagine it would receive a PG due to some of the intense action scenes. I don’t think too many preteens would like this movie but if you have a good reader to show how the Melville novel was tackled on screen, be sure to bring him to the Orpheum this weekend.

Show times are 7 p.m. on Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Visit the theater for tours and check out the gallery and exhibit hall that features Iowa stage and film memorabilia and information. Call the Orpheum Theater Center movie hotline at 641-844-5907 or visit

Tom LaVille is a retired Marshalltown drama and literature teacher. LaVille’s Critic’s Corner column appears Friday in the Times-Republican.