The Times We Lived In: Having a whale of a time

Published: July 18th , 1954 Photograph by Dermot Barry

Once upon a time, one of the greatest film-makers of all time took on the challenge of adapting one of the greatest novels of all time for the big screen. The result? Not happy ever after, that’s for sure.

When it was released in 1956, John Huston's movie version of Moby Dick was universally reviled: but as is often the way with movies, and indeed novels, time has proved kinder than the critics of the day.

The casting of Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, in particular, caused much merriment among filmerati.

Too young and too handsome for the part of the demonic old sea-dog, Peck was nevertheless a big box-office draw following the success of his most recent smash, the sweet-natured rom-com Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn.


Peck wasn't the only unlikely cast member on board the troubled ship Moby Dick. The part of Flask, the third mate on board the whaling ship Pequod, was played by The Irish Times's drama critic and long-time Quidnunc columnist Séamus Kelly: which is perhaps why photographer Dermot Barry was despatched to Youghal, Co Cork, to capture the action as Huston shot the movie's opening scenes in the summer of 1954.

Wisely, Barry ignored his colleague and concentrated on the stars, capturing this image of a kneeling Huston showing Peck the, ahem, technically correct way to grip a piece of rope. The image is unkind to Peck – who didn’t look quite so grim for most of the film – but it clearly shows the livid scar down the side of his face and his whalebone artificial leg, objects of much discussion amongst his outraged fans at the time, on whatever was the equivalent of Twitter and Facebook in the olden days.

Meanwhile, ranged all along the quayside are the extras who watched the Pequod set off for its fateful encounter with the white whale. It’s a terrifically powerful scene.

But I've watched it, and Peck doesn't appear in it. Was this shot staged for the benefit of The Irish Times? In which case, maybe we should call it Moby Hack . . .

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