It hit me yesterday afternoon that I’d forgotten to write a review of Ron Howard‘s mostly mediocre In The Heart of the Sea (Warner Bros., 12.11). So I tried to bang something out but it wouldn’t come. I just tried again an hour ago, but I don’t give enough of a shit. (Writing about something you care about is fairly easy or at least not too difficult, but when you don’t care it’s always a slog.) Sea is basically a primitive B-level adventure saga that indulges in tired popcorn cliches. And it has only sporadic interest in the real-deal particulars of the notorious Essex tragedy, which not only inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” but which are more interesting than the film’s simple-dick tale.
The Essex disaster was described in first-person accounts by Essex cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (whose 1876 book, “The Loss of The Ship Essex — Sunk By A Whale — and The Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats,” didn’t publish until 1984 due to the manuscript being lost until 1960) and first mate Owen Chase, who wrote a book about the Essex disaster only months after returning to Nantucket (“Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex“) and saw it published in 1821.
It was Chase’s book that inspired Melville to write “Moby Dick” and not, as Charles Leavitt‘s screenplay imagines it, as a result of Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviewing a reluctant and hostile Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson) about the incident. The screenplay makes no mention whatsoever of the Chase account, and it tells us that the absurdly over-sized whale that sank the Essex stalked and tormented the survivors in lifeboats for weeks after the sinking, which is ridiculous bullshit.
There are shards and sometimes larger portions of truth in Howard’s film, but it lies and omits and often seems to fantasize or otherwise dumb things down. You stop trusting it early on.
When I left the film a Deadline guy asked me what I thought, and I went “ehhh, not very good.” And he agreed. And that’s the truth. Right now it’s averaging in the low 50s on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.
An interesting side saga about Captain George Pollard, Jr., played by Benjamin Walker in Howard’s film: “[After the Essex tragedy] Pollard returned to sea in early 1822 to captain the whaleship Two Brothers. After it was wrecked on the French Frigate Shoals during a storm off the coast of Hawaii on his first voyage, he joined a merchant vessel which was in turn also wrecked off the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiian Islands) shortly thereafter. By now Pollard was considered a ‘Jonah’ (unlucky), and no ship owner would trust him to sail on a ship again, so he was forced to retire. He became Nantucket’s night watchman.”
Wikipedia and various accounts report that the Essex was not the only ship believed to be attacked by a whale. Four ships besides the Essex were attached or sunk, three of them before the writing of Melville’s “Moby Dick.” In 1835, Pusie Hall was attacked. In 1836, Lydia and Two Generals were both attacked by whales. In 1850, Pocahontas was sunk by a whale. On August 20, 1851, Ann Alexander was sunk by a whale.