The Cold War's "Undigested Apple-Dumpling": Imaging Moby-Dick in 1956 and 2001

By Metz, Walter C. | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Cold War's "Undigested Apple-Dumpling": Imaging Moby-Dick in 1956 and 2001


Metz, Walter C., Literature/Film Quarterly


On 10 September 2001, I was writing the following as a chapter in my book project about canonical novels adapted into Cold War American films: In Approaches to Teaching Moby-Dick, one of a series of pedagogically-oriented Modern Language Association books on classic literature, Martin Bickman makes the following claim about the 1956 Hollywood film version of Melville's mid-nineteenth-century novel, directed by John Huston:

There is widespread agreement . . . that the 1956 Warner Brothers film of Moby-Dick, casting Gregory Peck as Ahab and something like the Goodyear Blimp as the whale, is unsatisfying. Milton R. Stern, however, ingeniously shows in "The Whale and the Minnow: Moby-Dick and the Movies" how a comparison of the film with the book can highlight the nature and strengths of the latter. (15)

As much of my previous work on film adaptation has shown-for example, my defense of Martin Ritt's 1959 melodramatic film version of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury-the elitist assumptions imbedded in such a knee-jerk critical assault on Hollywood films need to be challenged.1 This paper proposes to question the "widespread agreement" that the only things to be said about Huston's film version of Moby-Dick are that it is obviously inferior to Melville's original and that it sports a rubbery special effects whale.

To pursue such a project, I will explore a set of critical approaches to Melville's novel that center on the 1950s as a crisis point in Moby-Dick criticism. In particular, this critical strand centers on the New Historicism's assault on accepted notions of the meanings of the key texts of the American Renaissance. Led by "New Americanist" Donald Pease, this criticism has suggested that the increased attention to Moby-Dick in post-World War II America was driven by Cold War ideology. By reading F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance as expressive of these ideological concerns, Pease argues, in his essay, "Moby-Dick and the Cold War," that Melville's novel was appropriated during the Cold War as a direct expression of a simplistic battle of good and evil, between an Ishmael who allegorically codes for freedom and a totalitarian Ahab. Of course, more generalized studies of the Cold War critical establishment's ideologically-driven readings of canonical literature have situated the Moby-Dick case within a larger paradigm. Geraldine Murphy's "Romancing the Center: Cold War Politics and Classic American Literature" is one such case in point.

This paper will use such criticism as a methodology for interrogating John Huston's film as a critical act, engaging with the Cold War assumptions as to the meaning and scope of Melville's Moby-Dick as it would have been understood circa 1956. First and foremost, such criticism pushes the apocalyptic components of Melville's novel to the foreground. A novel that uses the Pequod as a microcosm of American diversity-in terms of class and race-ends with the destruction of that symbol. Furthermore, as Lakshmi Mani proposes in The Apocalyptic Vision in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Melville's apocalyptic ending relies on the vast ocean as the site of imperialist conquest and its failure, an ocean that clearly resonates with Pacific atomic bomb testing prevalent in the American consciousness of the 1950s. Thus, when Pease suggests, "That final cataclysmic image of total destruction motivated Matthiessen and forty years of Cold War critics to turn to Ishmael, who in surviving must, the logic would have it, have survived as the principle of America's freedom and who hands over to us our surviving heritage," it can be made resonant with Huston's film's Cold War activation of Richard Basehart-as-Ishmael's ideological survival of the United States in its conflict with the Soviet Union.

Continuing with such top-down political readings of the film, one would observe that Melville's engagement with theories of leadership-contained in his examination of Ahab's ruination of the "ship of state" and its resonance with Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, for example-would be pertinent for a film made at the moment of Dwight Elsenhower's 1956 defeat of Adlai Stevenson. …

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