Sea Shanties & Dirges

“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.”
Herman Melville
Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne

I’ve liked sea stories since I saw Disney’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

Sea legends have been much retold, studied, and sung about. The 18th Century mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty has been the source for stage (including a musical), television, and screen adaptations, with three Hollywood versions.  Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) was the first to appear on screen, starring Clark Gable; a second adaptation (1962) starred Brando; and a third adaptation (1984), titled Bounty, credits its screenplay to Robert Bolt.

The most infamous sea story of the 20th century, the sinking of the RMS Titanic, is a sea disaster that has been many times a stage (including a musical), television, and film subject. The 1997 mega-epic Hollywood version won the Best Picture Oscar and has profits of nearly $2.2 billion.

An albino sperm whale attacking the US whaling ship Essex in 1820 is the sea legend most woven into contemporary life.  This historical shipwreck was the source of Herman Melville’s monumental novel, Moby Dick. First Runner-Up for the “Great American Novel,” Moby Dick is a customary classroom assignment. Electronic singer/songwriter Moby (Richard Melville Hall) confesses that even he never finished his great, great, great, great, uncle Herman Melville’s magnum opus while the Pequod’s First Mate, Starbuck, has spawned an apocryphal corporate legend.

I first read Moby Dick in high school. But my memory of the experience now is that I saw the John Huston 1956 movie, adapted by screenwriter Ray Bradbury, before I read Melville’s classic sea story.

I remember seeing the movie in a very ornate movie palace on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ. The movie scene clearest in my memory follows Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck—looking like Abe Lincoln with a peg leg) in his tiny boat on the open sea in relentless pursuit of the albino whale. Frantically fighting but never retreating, Ahab furiously hacks at his nemesis as the goliath takes Ahab thrashing down into the deep and to perdition. They rise again in a last thrust as, even after death, Ahab lashed to the white whale beckons us to follow them on his quest to hell.

Melville's majestic prose, Bradbury's adventure-infused screenplay (according to legend, written in an eight-hour frenzy), Huston's hyperbolic direction, Philip Sainton's operatic musical score, and childhood movie memory collide when I look back to that horrific movie scene. I didn’t actually see this climactic scene so much as I extrapolated it from what I heard, shutting my eyes to avoid watching the irresistible, morbid catastrophe on the screen, then looking back and forth from screen to the elaborate gilding of the proscenium arch in the dark. Closing my eyes not to look, yet not being able to look away, struggling to avoid the unspeakable misery, I can understand. What I don’t understand is my seeing Moby Dick in Atlantic City because I grew up in Chicago. Isn’t it funny how certain true or untrue shards of memory remain sharp long after they have any verifiable historical context?

Lost among today’s slate of infinite comic book violence and buddy movies male and female, I’m a fan of Ron Howard’s epic In the Heart of the Sea (2015).

This recent film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name detailing Melville’s writing Moby Dick. I think it is an important movie more than I deem it a good movie because the Herculean feat of Herman Melville creating his monumental masterpiece holds import. The movie was no blockbuster: at a cost of approximately $100 million it lost money with worldwide box office less than $94 million. There was a Studio-System time when Hollywood allowed a quality movie, resigned it would not be a financial bonanza, among its schedule.

Decrying Hollywood budgeting today is not the purpose of this blog. The indifferent world of the sea and the enormous complications of Melville’s sea story are also neither this blog’s nor Howard’s movie’s subjects. Facing Evil—and finding God—is the novel’s quest while cataloging the Whiteness of the Whale as symbols in the novel is a literary parlor game. But again, none of these is the topic of Howard’s movie or this blog. 

Indeed, both Howard’s movie and this blog’s lofty topic is the human process to create Art. Evil drives Melville’s groundbreaking novel and evil abounds in In the Heart of the Sea. However, this movie is a testament to Truth, the beauty of Art. It illuminates Melville’s re-imagining a 19th Century historical disaster into his timeless literary creation.  The movie opens our eyes to Herman Melville’s genius, that is, the movie reverences the potential of human endeavor, the universality of the human experience, and the triumph of the human spirit.

On the other hand, the white whale is not voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, so who cares?