Lucky me, I am obsessed with nineteenth century seafaring disasters of late. Like a virulent flu, I suspect this obsession will soon run its frantic course. After all: these tales, incredible as they are, have a sameness. They are marked by man’s hubris and greed, the exploitation of fellow men and of our environment, a tragic series of elemental setbacks, starvation and exposure and finally, cannibalism. Last week I finished Dan Simmon’s (exceedingly long) novel The Terror; and for the last month I have been in absolute enthrall of AMC’s stunning adaptation.
Not everyone knows that Herman Melville wrote his chef d’oeuvre Moby Dick based off a true story: the 1820 sinking of the whaling ship Essex out of Nantucket, and the resultant ordeal endured by the surviving men. In 2000 Nathaniel Philbrick published a novel titled In the Heart of the Sea, and this is the adaptation Ron Howard creates, more or less, for the 2015 movie. A simplified version of the story, Howard’s film first establishes a cultural and social rivalry between two men: Captain Captain George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), a fairly inexperienced leader from a proud and mercenary whaling family, and Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an experienced first mate, cast as a tough and hardworking family man. Both men are prideful and arrogant, but their chest-thumping hijinks on the trip are put aside once a massive whale kicks their ass and sinks their whaleship. Tom Holland plays Thomas Nickerson, the unlucky fourteen year old cabin boy on his first voyage; Nickerson is also played in his 1852 iteration by Brendan Gleeson as the older man narrates the ordeal to a young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) as Nickerson’s wife (Michelle Fairley) listens in.
The film is just too short for the events, let alone the social messages the screenplay tries to shoehorn in. In reality, after the Essex sank the men were at sea without food or shelter for over three months, in three boats; eight men of twenty survived, and of the dead seven of them were fully cannibalized, some of them killed for that explicit purpose. Here’s a description of what one boat was reduced to upon rescue:
Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen ‘sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.’
How on earth can you tell a story like that in just a couple hours? My consumption of the literary and celluloid versions of The Terror, which could afford to take much more time with such subject matter, has cast a pall on In the Heart of the Sea; this 2015 film feels, predictably, rushed. It also seems a bit cluttered: we have several subplots including Chase’s marriage, the greed of the whaling community, Chase and Pollard’s antagonism, Chase’s stewardship of the young Nickerson, and the alcoholism of second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), the latter subplot embellished with predictable cheap vignettes. And of course there is a big-ass whale who makes several appearances; time will tell if the CGI creature effects hold up.
In the Heart of the Sea is a beautiful film (with a few beautiful men) but not the best sea disaster film I’ve seen; that said, if you are an Essex completist, it’s an absolute must-see.