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Ron Howard’s bold encounter with the heart of American literary adventure

Imagine Entertainment. That’s the name of Ron Howard’s production company with Brian Grazer.

Imagine a movie adventure so perversely and courageously old-fashioned that it almost pulls into movie megaplexes guaranteed to be a box-office failure. That’s Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea,” and I can’t tell you how much I hope box-office failure is not the case. It’s a good movie – exciting, well-filmed and full of stuff you never knew before.

In the likelihood of another stumble at the box office, though, it will mean that, yet again, Warner Brothers has assumed things about the audiences for their movies that may not be the case. (See the fates of “The 33,” “Pan,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Jupiter Ascending.”)

The trouble with Howard’s new movie is that the kind of movie it is – a “ripping sea yarn” – is so old-fashioned that even the phrase to describe it is at best a century old.

But this particular ripping sea yarn is one of the truly essential American stories, and therein lay the guts of both Howard and Warner Brothers in greenlighting the movie. “In the Heart of the Sea” is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book of the same name, whose subtitle is “the tragedy of the whaleship Essex.”

The reason why this ripping yarn is one of the essential American tales is that this is the story that directly inspired Herman Melville to write “Moby Dick,” which, should anyone ever actually need a novel to pass as “The Great American Novel,” will do quite nicely.

“A great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul,” wrote D.H. Lawrence of it in “Studies in Classic American Literature.”

Melville – played in the film by Ben Whishaw – began writing “Moby Dick” in 1850. The sinking of the Essex by a gigantic white sperm whale was told of in a book by the ship’s first mate, Owen Chace, published in 1821.

Some of us first encountered a mention of Chace’s book in “Call Me Ishmael,” the great book about “Moby Dick” by the giant (6-foot-7) American poet Charles Olson, whose brief tenure at the University at Buffalo brought Robert Creeley here too and has influenced literature in this city ever since.

Chace’s book is about a giant white sea creature of singular malevolence that sank a whaling ship and put its survivors into terrified survival mode in the boats meant to be used to harpoon whales.

Before the men were rescued, survival entailed cannibalism; the sailors quite literally ate their young.

In “Call Me Ishmael,” Olson tells us that Melville wrote in his copy of Chace’s book that the sufferings of the survivors “might have been avoided had they immediately after leaving the wreck steered straight for Tahiti,” which wasn’t, at that point, far.

But instead “they dreaded cannibals & strange to tell knew not for more than 20 years the English missions that had been resident in Tahiti.” In other words, the whalers eventually became themselves the very thing they most dreaded because of racist fears of what they’d find in Tahiti. And if that isn’t a cardinal American story, what is?

That’s not the brutally ironic story Howard’s film tells. He tells us a tale of whaling, of Owen Chace – played by Chris Hemsworth as thoroughly convincing a hero of a 19th century adventure yarn as Hollywood has right now – and the horrific bedeviling creature that malevolently sank their ship and seemed to want to follow and down its survivors, too.

It’s an exciting and tensely malevolent version of the kind of thing movie audiences once loved in “Treasure Island” and “Captains Courageous” – both of those from literature too (by, respectively, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling.)

It’s all told to Whishaw as Melville in flashback by Brendan Gleeson, playing a rueful and stricken survivor, just as Melville is about to embark on writing his masterwork.

The heart of “Moby Dick,” of course, is the horrifying death contest between the whale and satanic Captain Ahab.

It is because of that that Melville wrote to his often-uncomfortable friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book and feel as feel as spotless as the lamb.” Melville’s Ahab baptizes his harpoon in the name of the devil. He is as big a character as there is in American literature (much bigger than Gregory Peck could ever be, when he tried to play him in John Huston’s version of Melville).

There’s nothing remotely like Ahab in Howard’s movie because it tries to stick to what happened to the Essex in the real world.

Howard just wants us, as did Olson and Philbrick, to imagine the reality that could call forth so much American literary genius.

It’s exciting indeed for some of us to do that along with him. It was almost noble of him to ask us to.



3 stars

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw

Director: Ron Howard

Running time: 121 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for intense action scenes, brief violence and harsh plot elements.

The Lowdown: The tragic story of the whaleship Essex whose destruction by a whale inspired Melville’s classic novel “Moby Dick.”

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