John Huston’s film Moby Dick (1956) is a true work of genius. The only film version worthy of the novel, the screenplay was written by Ray Bradbury who in 10,000 words got to the essence of the 206,052 word novel. (Bradbury confessed when he was approached by Huston to do the screenplay that he had never been able to get through the novel.) A deeply religious film that asks questions about God and the human condition that still jar us, the most striking scene is the sermon on Jonah by Father Mapple, portrayed unforgettably by Orson Welles. Enoch Mudge who served as the chaplain of the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford and Father E.T. Taylor who served as the chaplain of the Seaman Bethel in Boston, served as the real life models for the fictional Mapple. (At the time of Melville any clergyman of age or authority was often accorded the title “Father” by his parishioners in Protestant churches, a distinction retained today only by Catholics, the Orthodox and a few Protestant churches.)
Welles suffered from a bad case of stage fright just prior to the scene and John Huston produced a bottle to help Welles fortify himself. Welles then did the scene letter perfect in one take. Here is the text of the sermon as written by Bradbury for the film:
And God prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. Shipmates, the sin of Jonah was in his disobedience of the command of God. He found it a hard command, and it was, for all the things that God would have us do are hard. If we would obey God, we must disobey ourselves.
But Jonah still further flouts at God by seeking to flee from him. Jonah thinks that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign. He prowls among the shipping like a vile burglar, hastening to cross the seas, and as he comes aboard the sailors mark him.
The ship puts out, but soon the sea rebels. It will not bear the wicked burden. A dreadful storm comes up. The ship is like to break. The bo’s’n calls all hands to lighten her. Boxes, bales and jars are clattering overboard, the wind is shrieking, the men are yelling. “I fear the Lord!” cries Jonah, “the God of Heaven who has made the sea and the dry land!”
Again, the sailors mark him. And wretched Jonah cries out to them to cast him overboard, for he knew that for his sake this great tempest was upon them.
Now behold Jonah, taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea, into the dreadful jaws awaiting him. And the great whale shoots to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison.
And Jonah cries unto the Lord, out of the fish’s belly. But observe his prayer, shipmates. He doesn’t weep and wail, he feels his punishment is just. He leaves deliverance to God. And even out of the belly of Hell, grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, God heard him when he cried. And God spake unto the whale, and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the deep, the whale breached into the sun and vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
And Jonah, bruised and beaten, his ears like two seashells still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean … Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding, and what was that, shipmates? To preach the truth in the face of falsehood!
Now, shipmates, woe to him who seeks to pour oil on the troubled water when God has brewed them into a gale. Yeah, woe to him who, as the pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway! But delight is to him who against the proud gods and commodores of this Earth, stands forth his own inexorable self, who destroys all sin, though we pluck it out from under the robes of senators, and judges. And eternal delight shall be his who, coming to lay him down, can say “Oh father, mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be thine, more than to be this world’s or mine own, yet this is nothing. I leave eternity to thee, for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?
Here is the much, much lengthier version from the novel (Too bad that time prevented Ray Bradbury from serving as Melville’s editor!) Continue reading
If there is a forgotten theater where American troops fought in World War II, it is most definitely the Aleutians. The Japanese took Attu and Kiska, islands in the Aleutian chain, in June of 1942, to forestall the Aleutians being used as a base for a move on the Japanese Home Islands from the Aleutians. Due to the rugged weather conditions, the US had never seriously entertained using the Aleutians as a staging area for future offensives. However, Attu and Kiska were American territory, and national pride, as well as alarm from the Alaskan territorial government, made inevitable an American campaign to take back the strategically worthless islands. Continue reading
Probably the most realistic depiction of World War II combat put to film, The Battle of San Pietro, in the public domain, is now considered a minor masterpiece. At the time of its release in 1945 it was intensely controversial. Fought between December 8-17 in 1943, the assault of the 143rd Infantry of the 36th Division was filmed by Captain John Huston, who was making films for the Army, a rare case where the Army actually made use of the civilian expertise of one of its soldiers. Huston’s film shows war in all of its unglamorous horror. After the Hollywood depiction of war during World War II it came as an unpleasant revelation for viewers. Army brass were concerned about the film having a depressing effect on the morale of the troops. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, however, came to the defense of the film, thinking that it would make a good training film, underlining to troops why they had to take their training seriously. The film was used in training and Huston was promoted to major.
He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
I recently was watching The Red Badge of Courage, (1951) and I was struck yet again by what a forgotten masterpiece it is. Filmed in stark black and white, the film has almost a documentary feel to it, as if a World War II era newsreel camera had magically transplanted itself to the Civil War. The combat scenes are highly realistic depictions of Civil War combat, and the actors speak and act like Civil War soldiers and not like 1951 actors dressed up in Civil War costumes.
As one critic said at the time, watching the film is like watching a Matthew Brady photograph of the Civil War come to life.
It was a stroke of genius for director John Huston to have as star of his film Audie Murphy, as the youth who, in Stephen Crane’s unforgettable novel, has his first taste of combat in the Civil War. Murphy looked like a typical Hollywood “pretty boy” but he was anything but. From a family of 12 in Texas, Murphy had dropped out of school in the fifth grade to support his family after his father ran off. His mother died in 1941. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army at 16, lying about his birthday, partially to support his family and partially because he dreamed of a military career. By the end of the war, before his 19th birthday, he was a second lieutenant and had earned in hellish combat a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a French Legion of Honor, a French Croix de Guerre, a Belgian Croix de Guerre, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. He was the most decorated soldier of the US Army in World War 2.
Murphy’s co-star in the film was also an Army combat veteran, Bill Mauldin, the famed cartoonist who drew the Willie and Joe cartoons in Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, during World War II. Continue reading
to care for him who shall have borne the battle
During World War II director John Huston produced three films for the US government. Let There Be Light was shot for the Army Signal Corps. It covers the treatment of 75 US soldiers traumatized by their combat experiences in World War II. The film is narrated by Walter Huston, the academy award-winning actor father of John Huston. The Army brass did not like the finished product, thinking that its focus on men who suffered psychological damage from their service could be demoralizing to the troops, and banned the film on the grounds that it invaded the privacy of the soldiers featured in the film and that the releases they signed had been lost. (This reason was pretextual, but as a matter of law I would not place any reliance on a release signed by someone undergoing mental treatment standing up for an instant in court.) Continue reading