Film maker Ron Howard has stated several times that the sneak preview of his 1995 movie Apollo 13 produced one comment card that totally trashed the film, alleging a typical Hollywood ending because no astronaut crew could have survived the ordeal portrayed on screen. The irony, of course, was that Howard had remained faithful to the real life predicament facing the Apollo 13 crewmen. One has to wonder then why Howard missed the historical and storytelling mark so horribly with In the Heart of the Sea.
In the Heart of the Sea purports to tell the backstory to Herman Melville's creation of Moby-Dick from the events surrounding the sinking of the whale ship Essex in 1820. Howard's film starts in 1850 with a thirty-ish Melville interviewing a significantly older man named Tom Nickerson (portrayed by the sixty year old Irish actor Brendan Gleeson) about his experiences aboard the Essex. In actuality Nickerson was only 45 in 1850 and lived another 33 years. Being a generous movie watcher, I'd normally grant Howard and his screenwriters (at least three worked on bringing Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction bestseller to the screen — when the number grows beyond two there's usually plot, character, or thematic problems afoot) this conceit in order to frame the story. However, Howard uses Nickerson's version of the tale to depict the Essex's first mate Owen Chase as the heroic figure of the tale. That he was, but with complications. The film version of In the Heart of the Sea paints Chase as an altruistic husband who promises to return to his wife before setting sail. In reality Chase was married to four or five women. One of whom bore a child 16 months after Chase went to sea.
The movie tells us that Chase was passed over for the captaincy of the Essex for a greenhorn named George Pollard because Pollard was the son of an influential Nantucket family. To some degree that was true, but the film does not even hint at the fact that Pollard and Chase served together on their most recent whaling venture, with Pollard as first mate and Chase as chief boatsman and harponeer.
For some saccharin reason, Howard felt it necessary to have Chase heroically swim under burning seas after the Essex was torn apart by an 80-foot long whale (the whale, which was not albino white, came back and rammed the ship a second time). The Essex did not catch fire from its precious whale oil, but lingered, without flames, for nearly two days while the survivors salvaged supplies from it before sinking.
Howard's film thoroughly misses chance after chance to depict a more conflicted, yet heroic Owen Chase. In reality, as the whale swam alongside the Essex after the initial ramming, Chase grabbed his harpoon in order to thrust it into the giant sea mammal, but held back because the whale was too near the ship's rudder. Chase believed that a writhing whale could easily destroy the vessel's primary steering mechanism.
The movie presents Pollard as a privileged seaman incapable of guiding his ship. Pollard did make mistakes and tensions were high between Chase and Pollard, primarily due to a lack of success in finding enough whales. However, after the sinking of the Essex, with the surviving crewmen in three 28-foot long whale boats rigged with sails to crate small schooners (and, at first, lashed together), Pollard wanted to sail/row for the Marquesas, but Chase and the vast majority of the surviving crew believed that cannibals inhabited those islands, so Pollard acceded to majority rule and the three whale boats made their way eastward toward South America, three times as far away. Think how much richer the irony when the men aboard both Chase and Pollard's boats, by then separated, resorted to cannibalism in order to prolong their lives.
Some of the criticisms of Howard's movie are almost too easy. There are brief nods toward 21st Century liberal sensibilities concerning the role of humankind in the ruination of nature. But Howard completely misses the figurative boat in this regard. He utilizes not a single strip of film on the Essex's stop in the Galapagos Islands.
In October, 1820 the Essex was hove down (heeled over on her side) to repair a leak in the protected bay of Hood Island. When the repairs were finished the Essex sailed the relatively short distance to Charles Island where whalers had for years maintained a crude "post office," with a cask serving as a makeshift mailbox underneath a giant tortoise shell. Letters were left for other ships or for transport back to Nantucket.
As a prank one of the Essex's crewmen lit a tinderbox in the dry brush of Charles Island. Though it was October, this was still the dry season in the Galapagos. By the time the Essex set sail the next morning nearly all of Charles Island was ablaze, killing tens of thousands of tortoises, birds, lizards, and snakes, some of which may have been species unique to Charles Island.
Captain Pollard was so incensed by the arson the perpetrator dared not reveal himself. Though anyone can read about this episode in quite some detail within the pages of Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, the film of the same name completely ignores this ironic calamity.
Perhaps the greatest gaffe of the moviemakers lies in the overall conceit/deceit of having Melville learn about the Essex, its sinking, and the subsequent harrowing tale of three months adrift on the open ocean through a meeting with Thomas Nickerson. Herman Melville had partaken of a whaling voyage himself aboard the Acushnet approximately a decade before writing Moby-Dick. On board the Acushnet he heard tales from older sailors about the destruction of the Essex by a gigantic bull whale. During a chance meeting with another whaling ship in the South Pacific Melville made the acquaintance of another young sailor, William Henry Chase, the son of the Essex's first mate. Melville made such an impression, the younger Chase gave him Owen Chase's complete written account of the disaster, Narrative of the Wrecking of the Whaleship Essex. Why Ron Howard didn't use this dramatic and true encounter to frame the cinematic telling of the story is a mystery yet to be revealed.
(Malcolm Macdonald's website is malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)