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Ahabs of Cinema History

So in an effort to capitalize on the crazy amount of hits my 2010 Moby Dick review is getting - apparently it was the first online - I thought I'd try to keep the ball rolling though the DVD release tomorrow with a look at the many men in cinema history who have tackled the complicated, nuanced, tortured role of Captain Ahab, the obsessed captain of the Pequod who would gladly sacrifice his own life, and even more gladly the lives of his crew, for the sake of enacting vengeance upon the famed, mythical white whale that stole his leg. Not just any actor can attempt such a role: it takes emotional depth, a wicked sneer and a delicate understanding of the fine line between duty and detriment, all of which the following actors have in some way brought to the screen.

John Barrymore, Drew's grandpappy, was the first man to portray Ahab, bringing the captain to the silver screen in 1930. This one's a pretty loose adaptation, throwing in a love story between Ahab and the daughter of Father Mapple, owing to Barrymore's matinee-idol good-looks and, I would suspect, a lack of seafaring footage that only a subplot could cover for. As such, it's not much to seek out unless you're a giant, devoted fan of either Barrymore or the novel.

 Undoubtedly the most famous performance as Captain Ahab - to date, that is - belongs to the great Gregory peck, who donned a chinbeard and pegleg to play the role for acclaimed and esteemed director John Huston in 1956. This is just a classic all around, featuring a script by Ray Bradbury and a supporting role for Orson Welles as Father Mapple. Huston had wanted Welles to play Ahab all along, but Welles was too devoted at the time to his burgeoning alcoholism to commit to such a large part. He would get the chance again, but forever would the character of Ahab become linked to Gregory Peck, even though Peck himself would later admit that at the age of 38, he was too young to play a weathered sea captain at the end of his career.

And as a kind of counter to the above, there is the 1978 filmed version of a stage production by Jack Aranson, which many consider to be the actual finest performance of Ahab. The production itself was named one of the five best one-man shows of the 20th century by Time Magazine. Aranson not only deftly tackles the soul of Ahab with such conviction and assured bravado as to instantly cause 3/4ths of any Masters acting class to drop out, he also - as the term "one-man show" would hint at - plays every other role in the performance. A tour de force by an actor virtually unknown in mainstream consciousness.

You just knew Patrick Stewart was going to play Ahab at some point. The guy's just built for it. And he brought a little change of style with him to this 1998 TNT Original Production: no beard whatsoever. Stewart's Ahab was more a sailor than other incarnation; instead of a tyrant barking orders, Stewart's Ahab was the Pequod, it's course, it's speed, it's handling were all his. Not the most believably obsessed of Ahabs, Stewart nonetheless brought the emotional gravitas the role required. Worth noting that this production was the last appearance of Gregory Peck, who here played Father Mapple.

 Though filmed in 1971 - the last thing Orson Welles would ever direct - this short film in which Welles plays Ahab and all other roles, wasn't released until 1999, after it had been edited according notes for a rehearsal Welles had given. Though brief, Welles fully showcases the timbre and strength of character that had made him Huston's first choice 15 years earlier. Interestingly enough, it was Welles' paycheck from Huston's version that helped finance the play that became this cut.

 Still yet to be released, this 2010 miniseries version stars Ethan Hawke as Starbuck opposite Academy Award Winner William Hurt as Ahab. Since it hasn't aired, the verdict isn't in on Hurt's performance, but I would expect it, given the man and his history, to be a more balanced incarnation than we've seen before, rage both bolstered and offset by sorrow, madness split both ways.

And then there's Barry Bostwick, who I think I've made my position quite clear on. If you need a refresher, scroll two posts down and re-read my 2010 Moby Dick review. In a nutshell? Best performance of the guy's career. While Bostwick's context is clearly the most divergent of the filmed adaptations, Ahab remains basically the same: a man trapped by his own quest for vengeance, a man who can't see beyond the scars - figurative and literal - of his past, and thus a man who has doomed himself but will never realize it.

These roles and actors are to say nothing of the hundreds of times Ahab has been brought to life on stage. Easily one of the most captivating, troubling and memorable characters in all of literature - American or otherwise - and a prime example of how one overwhelming directive can transform not just a man's life, but the man himself, until he gets to a point at which he sees his life, himself, as, in Ahab's own words, "the Fates' lieutenant, acting under orders."

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