Heart Trouble

There are quite enough under-qualified film critics offering opinions on the Internet, but since I first related my excitement at the prospect of a film adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” back in June of 2014, I feel a sense of obligation to weigh in with my feelings about the result, which is currently sinking without a trace at the box office.  Philbrick’s book is a splendidly harrowing account of the ordeal of the crew of the Essex, a vessel that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.  When I first heard that Ron Howard was set to direct the film version with Chris Hemsworth cast as the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase, I felt confident that the director of “Apollo 13” and the God of Thunder would team up to give us something memorable, whether modern audiences were ready to sign on for the ill-fated voyage or not.

Trailers for the film started appearing online late last year, and looked gorgeous, even if the title card for one, inviting audiences to “Witness the encounter that inspired the myth - Moby Dick,” had me puzzled.  The myth Moby Dick?  Well, perhaps the novel has achieved mythical status by being the book everyone has heard of but nobody reads, a kind of literary Bigfoot.  When the premiere was delayed from last March until December I began to sense trouble, although not enough to make me hesitate at the ticket counter on the film's opening weekend.  My wife and I sat in a largely empty theater, along with what may have been one or two other couples somewhere in the darkness behind us.  After the credits had unspooled and the house lights came up, my wife announced, “That was good!”  The film’s Cinemascore grade of B+ means that most moviegoers, or at least a majority of the few who were curious enough to buy a ticket to a whaling movie, largely agree with her.

The movie brilliantly delivers the goods we want from a seafaring tale.  There’s a completely convincing re-creation of Nantuckett circa 1820, pulse-pounding action scenes that convey the excitement, danger and cruelty of harpooning whales for a living, with an unflinching sense of the aroma aboard what was, after all, a 19th-century slaughterhouse and oil refinery.  So, what’s wrong with the film?  

Since, besides telling a mostly-true story, “In the Heart of the Sea” also hopes to make a buck by getting its audience cheering, it labors to deliver a triumphal, crowd-pleasing finale.  But why stop at one when we can have a whole series of them?  It’s evidently not enough that, through luck and ingenuity and stubborn determination, nearly half the crew survive their long voyage home on leaky little boats that slowly drift toward civilization.  After being rescued, the captain and his first mate must overcome pressure from corporate masters, who want them to testify at an inquest that the Essex ran aground - an explanation that won’t be so scary to potential crews and insurance companies, you see.  

Haunted by his memory of a vengeful whale that stalked the crew relentlessly even after sinking their ship, the film's Owen Chase swears off whaling to become a merchant seaman, presumably to support the lovely young wife waiting for him at the wharf with a daughter he had not yet met.  Thirty years later, former cabin boy Thomas Nickerson must conquer his own demons and divulge horrific details of the crew's struggle for survival to young Herman Melville, who will turn the story of the Essex into an American classic.  In fact, a late-night conversation between Nickerson and Melville becomes an intrusive framing device, turning the whole film into a story about how “Moby Dick” came to be written.

Unfortunately, none of these stirring details is quite accurate.  A coverup wouldn’t have worked because survivors had already spilled the beans to any sailor willing to listen.  The crew never saw the attacking whale again after it sank their ship.  After returning home, Owen Chase continued to hunt whales and made a fortune doing it, though the attractive young wife we see in the film didn’t reap the benefit of his success.  His first wife Peggy, who had a second daughter while her husband was away at sea, died after giving birth to his son William.  His second wife Nancy, the widow of Essex crewman Matthew Joy, also died shortly after childbirth.  A third wife proved to be unfaithful during another of Chase’s long whaling absences, motivating him to divorce her and marry for a fourth and final time.  He never went to sea again.

Herman Melville did not interview Thomas Nickerson, the former cabin boy of the Essex, who at the time the author prepared to write his story, was not, as the film states, the last surviving witness (Nickerson was fourteen when the Essex had set sail thirty years earlier, but some of his shipmates were in their twenties).  Instead, the writer was moved to write “Moby Dick” because he was obsessed with Owen Chase’s account of the incident, rushed into print by the first mate of the Essex with the help of a ghost-writer a few months after his return to Nantucket in 1821.  Melville did once run into George Pollard, the ship’s captain, but there was no need to ply him or any other crew members with liquor.  The story of the whaleship Essex was already one of the best-known maritime disasters of the 19th century before Melville delivered his own whale of a novel to the publisher. 

The piling up of little fibs (I’ve listed only about half of the ones I noticed) makes me wonder at what point something should stop calling itself a true story.  The film has what faux news commentator Stephen Colbert might have called “truthiness,” a factual core sprinkled with bits lifted from “Moby Dick,” “Jaws IV,” and “A Few Good Men” to punch up the story.  The real-life tale of a ship demolished by a whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, whose crew was forced to resort to cannibalism before being rescued, just wasn’t dramatic enough for a big-budget movie.             

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com