Sharon Lorenzo reviews the Warner Brothers film from Herman Melville and Nathaniel Philbrick’s interpretations of the tale of the whale ship Essex.

Ron Howard and his screen writer, Charles Leavitt, paid about one million dollars for the film rights to Nathaniel Philbrick’s book of 2000, In the Heart of the Sea. The budget for the film was about $100 million dollars, and revenue to date is about the same. While not the smashing success of another survival tale that scooped up many academy awards, Revenant, with Leonardo di Caprio, In the Heart of the Sea is a gripping historic tale of life and death in the pursuit of our economic life blood: oil. The New York Times called it epic in ambition.[1]  Variety said it was a cracker jack thriller.[2] The reviewer from the Guardian complained that “ Thar she blows” was omitted, as the first mate cried instead, “As I live and breathe Moby Dick is mine.”[3] Launching his harpoon into the hide of what Philbrick called a self-propelling tub of high-income lard, Owen Chase aimed for the heart of the 85 ton specimen.[4]

heart-2The Whale Boat

What appeals to the movie pubic today is anybody’s guess.  It often seems like a random game of poker and good luck mixed with timing and finesse. Pleasing the film academy is even murkier.  Those who venture into the fray have the courage of Pollard and Chase combined, the captain and first mate of the ill-fated whaleship, Essex, from Nantucket, Massachusetts.

The movie begins with a flashback tale from Tom Nickerson to Melville with details told 50 years after the return of the survivors.  Curiously, Philbrick’s book was an effort to review the long lost diary of Nickerson found in an attic in Penn Yan, Massachusetts in 1960. It was given to Nantucket historian Edouard Stackpole as a gift to the Whaling Museum archives. Philbrick poured over the manuscript and crafted a more accurate depiction than the fiction of Melville written in 1850.  Melville came to the island after writing the book and interviewed Captain Pollard who was then serving as the town’s night watchman. While not a popular effort in his lifetime, Moby Dick has become the classic American adventure novel required of every English major. Due to the discovery of a sister chip, Two Brothers, in the waters of Hawaii in 2011, interest in these voyages has been renewed.

Philbrick noted in his own review of the story that Nantucket had a population in 1819 of 7000 people who had survived the ramifications of the War of Independence in 1776 and the battles with the British again in 1812.  The local island farmland was over used and the offshore whaling in the Atlantic seemed to be producing very little oil by 1819.   The new economics of a whaleship bound for the oceans of the South Pacific required 21 men, 3 or 4 lifeboats, and a 2-3 year advance from financiers who were willing to risk the reward of a ship returning with the oil from 40-50 whales.  The best calculations of the odds were that a full boat in 1820 had the lump sum present value at that time of about $12 million dollars, as oil from the ground had not yet emerged in either Texas or Pennsylvania to light the homes of America. While Quaker in faith, the Nantucketeers were brave and fearless in a very messy endeavor where the blubber was rendered from the captured whales on board in caldrons that produced an unforgettable stench.

heart-5 The Essex

Subsequent investigations of the intelligence of higher mammals has revealed that both whales and elephants possess more sensitivity than most would have suspected. Elizabeth Moss, a learned student of elephant behavior, has documents from studies in the wild that elephants usually mate for life, bury their own dead, mourn the loss of their children, and dance to music around a campfire swinging their trunks in time to the beat![5]  Philbrick hypothesizes that the whale  struck the Essex when the crew were repairing leaks in the bilge with hammers that might have sounded like the flap of the tale of another male in its mating territory.  The aggression of the spermaceti male has been noted as the females and young of the species seem to be guarded by the big daddy until he is finished with his mating season.[6]  Additionally scholars have seen albino versions of these whales in the waters of the South Pacific, a note to Melville calling this the white whale in his text.

heart-4Leviathon

The tale of cannibalism which enabled the stranded sailors to survive is also chronicled by Philbrick as the order of the day according to British admiralty law. The drawing of straws to kill one member is allowed for the survival of the group. The ultimate heartbreak of the entire episode is the burden of Pollard returning to Nantucket to tell his cousin that they consumed her son, Owen Coffin.

This may not be on everyone’s to do list, but I recommend this film and Philbrick’s book as an essential exercise in American history. They also provide the chance to see how truth, fiction and film combine in our media age.  While there is artistic license all around, the ability of modern film to capture the essence of the experience is indeed remarkable.  You can never forget the enormity of the whale flukes as the whale tail hits the ocean waves. The survival in the life boats challenges all of our ideas of what it takes to keep the human body alive.  As first mate Owen Chase finally succumbed to dementia in his later years on Nantucket, he was found with cans of food under his bed, no doubt a last effort to make sure he would never be hungry again.  In the Heart of The Sea is a well told tale of 19th century America and its early attempts at capitalism in the hot pursuit of oil, a phenomenon which still plagues our financial markets today.

heart-6 Chris Hemsworth as First Mate, Owen Chase on The Essex

 


[1] Manohla Dargis, It’s Man vs. The Leviathan. The New York Times, December 10, 2015.

[2] Justin Chang, In the Heart of the Sea, Variety, December 2, 2015.

[3] Jordan Hoffman, In the Heart of the Sea Review, The Guardian, December 2, 2015.

[4] Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea. Viking Press, 2000.

[5] Cynthia Moss, 13 Years in the Life of an Elephant Family. University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[6] Nathaniel Philbrick, How Nantucket Came to Be the Whaling Capital of the World, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2015.