Gregory Peck… Before this week, I had only known him as the father in To Kill A Mockingbird, a role that made him one of the most beloved men in America– seeing as how every girl in the country wanted him to be her father (or maybe even her George Michael style “father figure”).
That said, the role of Atticus Finch was not a particularly demanding one, and I assumed that Peck was more of a “movie star” than a thespian, more of a Cary Grant or a Humphrey Bogart or even a George Clooney than a Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep— that is to say, someone with that certain je ne sais quoi, a certain star quality that lights up the screen even when he’s doing nothing particularly interesting.
But in the last few days I’ve seen the films Moby Dick and The Guns Of Navarone, both starring Gregory Peck. I am now even more convinced of Peck’s star quality—but more importantly, I also discovered that the man had some acting chops, too– especially demonstrated in Moby Dick.
I don’t want to go into two movie reviews here, but as the whole purpose of this blog is to mark my progress through my Self-Doctorate by taking time to more fully contemplate and review my studies before I move on to the next subject, I will say this much about each film…
The Guns Of Navarone was a decent action flick that could have moved faster—especially when it comes to a few big set pieces of super action from which the director, J. Lee Thompson, could not seem to pull himself away. Probably trying to squeeze as much out of the expensive sequences as possible. One for-instance: the shipwreck scene goes on so long and with so little progress that I actually suspected a few times that I was seeing the exact same footage re-played.
A word about genre: The Guns Of Navarone is definitely a war movie— I’ll file it that way, myself. But it is really more of an action adventure movie than anything else. War merely provides the backdrop and initial motivations.
Similarly, the movie Casablanca takes place during World War Two, but it’s not really a war movie. The Guns Of Navarone is centered around a special unit’s sabotage mission during the same war, and so is therefore much, much more of a war movie than Casablanca, but that granted, its emphasis is definitely not on military life or civilian war-time drama or battle scenes. I find that Guns has similarities in tone with something like The Great Escape.
The cast of The Guns Of Navarone was top-knotch. Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn (one of my favorite actors!), David Niven, and Irene Papas are all in it. Gia Scala, a beautiful actress previously unknown to me, was also good, and actually got the plum role of the film as far as breadth of emotions and character development is concerned.
But the best character in the film was the one portrayed by David Niven. Niven is perhaps today not venerated as he ought to be for his outstanding comedic skills, skills based more on timing and delivery than pratfalls and contortions. At one point in the movie, Niven’s character gets to expound upon the mad tragedy of war. But what makes this harangue sublime is that Niven’s character, serving more or less as comic relief for most of the movie up til that point, is suddenly deadly serious and sincere, and somehow that switch in persona comes off as believable, almost inevitable, and—taken together with Scala’s fine performance in the same scene– makes for the most moving segment of the film.
Dammit. I am moving into movie review mode. I’ll save til another day, perhaps, my praise for Anthony Quinn. He deserves a post all his own.
As far as the other Gregory Peck movie I just watched, Moby Dick… This movie has moments of greatness. Captain Ahab, portrayed by Peck, is given the full Shakespearian treatment; and indeed, he belongs in that pantheon of tragic heroes (thanks, Mister Melville!). Peck, from his movies I’ve seen so far anyway, here obtains his highest achievement as an actor. His Ahab is brooding and dark; somehow even Peck’s eyes appear deeper and darker than ever, glowing like black fire in the shadows of his heavy brow. But the genius in the portrayal is not in the brooding—many an actor could hit that one note the whole movie long—but comes in also showing us Ahab’s hysterical side when the great white whale seems to be almost in reach. Peck also hits the mark when Ahab is trying to manipulate his men to join him in his monomania; he is in turns likeable, inspiring, and heroic to his men, who by the end of the film… well, you can see the dramatic result for yourself.
The dialogue in the movie version of Moby Dick is heightened and penetrating, both psychologically and philosophically. In fact, though the dialogue does not quite reach the sustained heights of that greatest of modern dialogue-driven movies, The Lion In Winter, it does play ball in the same stadium.
Coincidently enough for this post, one of the drawbacks of the film is its overly extended whale-hunting scenes which—also as in The Guns Of Navarone— appear to have a few of the same shots replayed. Maybe it’s just a mark of the times. Perhaps audiences of that day wanted to see a big, eye-popping, expensive action scene drawn out and even parts of it repeated. After all, there was no pause or repeat buttons back then, no renting the movie and seeing it again. It was even difficult to find a movie playing again once it was finished with its theatrical release.
Nevertheless, besides being overly long, the whale scenes were exciting and well done. For its time, the special effects were good, though the modern viewer might have some trouble ignoring the obviousness of the models sometimes—especially when what appears to be a model boat filled with little doll-men is chasing after Moby Dick.
The narrating character of Moby Dick, the “Call me Ishmael” dude— well, he’s forgettable enough. Actually— no, that’s not true. I remember this about him: he seemed about a decade too old for the part as it was written in the movie.
Quiqueg was played very well, but I was disappointed in one thing: he was the wrong color. At least as I always imagined him. But, as I don’t feel inclined to hold the man’s skin color against him, I have to say, the actor (whom I did not recognize) did a wonderful job in playing both the intimidating presence of Quiqueg and the character’s knack for inadvertently providing fine comedy.
Now that I know I like Gregory Peck, I’ll have to make sure to one day watch the several other movies he did with the great Anthony Quinn.