The Quakers social order was also a bit topsy-turvy. In fact, it was the woman who made up the powerful hierarchy that ran the island since the men were at sea most often for multiple years at a time. And the women liked it that way.
The only hint of the presence of the Quakers in the film was a small gathering of people dressed in black in communal prayer at the dock as the Essex sailed off. To Ron Howard's credit, the recreation of the Nantucket village dock area was vibrant and well-done. But the scope of the shooting was claustrophobic once it was chopped up with cropped quick cutting. After going to all the work of building antique sets and recreating a harbor front circa 1821, it was wasted away in the editing.
There also lacked a reverence and the detailed mechanics of actually sailing one of those creaky weathered magnificent 19th century wooden ships, which the English manage so deftly in their period films such as "Horatio Hornblower," maybe because their entire empire was based on their ability to conquer the open seas.
I also think Howard missed the boat by not portraying the attitudes of the characters of the time in more depth, such as they did in the film "Moby Dick."
Instead, "In the Heart of the Sea" takes us on a short jarring whale hunt, with some "Pirates of the Caribbean" like footage of processing a whale at sea, then mainly focuses on the wretched experience of survival at the hand of mother nature at her most brutal, where the questions of the small things become a peculiar diversion in the slow agonizing moments of hopelessness, like doling out small pieces of hardtack biscuits, guarding the pitifully minute fresh water supply, or weaving a thin piece of twine to mark the days at sea.
Appropriately Ron Howard's film "In the Heart of the Sea" opens with the tortured author, Melville, seeking the first hand tale of the sinking of the famed Essex whaler ship, one of the first to be attacked with a vigilante vengeance by a mammoth lance scarred blockheaded sperm whale as if wrought for the pain inflicted on the whole of his species.
To quote another great writer of the time: " The whale who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell...and stirred the troubled waters to send the Essex packing off to hell..."
The attack happened while the Essex was chasing a massive school of whales near the equator west of South America, in the vastness of the belly of the Pacific ocean. It was churned into a mere pile of splintered parts and splintered men left stranded over a thousand miles from any spec of land.
Twenty men escaped the incident with their lives, some meager rations, and the barest of navigational equipment. Clinging to life, they handily turned three small whaling boats into rudimentary schooners with makeshift rigging they had scavenged from the Essex before all manner of her disappeared beneath the waves.
For months they were tumbled about hopelessly at the mercy of the winds, currents, and hot sun, plagued also by the eerie appearances of the sinister white whale tracking them, like a ghost, until they death whittled them down to eight barely breathing skeletons adrift in two boats.
"And thunder shakes the white surf...sailors pitch at sea...when you are powerless to pluck life back. Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost...in the mad scramble of their lives...only bones abide...(but) for centuries a (wretched) memory."
Man has taken to the water since the days of Homo-erectus, whether for food or adventure or just curiosity we'll never know. The first seaworthy boats are thought to be invented around 800,000 years ago, while other human records show twenty -man reed boats are depicted in rock carvings as far back as 10,000 B.C.
Now fast-forward to 1829, when stalwart sailors along with those who once felled forests, or sowed fields, or were running from the law, felt compelled to snatch up a lance and go hunting for the leviathan of all fish, Spermaceti Whales, aboard the grandest of wooden sailing ships of the day.
As well as fueling the booming industrial age of the time, the world was lit and warmed by those rich oils burned down from sperm whales blubber, not to mention the coveted prize-the pearly white wax-like material found in the head cavity of the mammal used for making candles, cosmetics, ointments and textiles.
Chasing and killing a sixty ton creature that could destroy a small whaleboat with the flick of its tail, while sailing in forbidden seas known to swallow up ships in its churning waves, took the most adventurous and arduous of crewmen, a high count of which were left to the tomb of the oceans.
And the famous island that was at the center of it all was little Nantucket, a handful of miles off the coast of Massachusetts, where the first dead American whale was stranded. "And where but from Nantucket too did that first adventurous sloop put forth, partly laden with imported cobblestones, so the story goes, to throw at the whales, in order to discover when they were nigh enough to risk a harpoon from the bowsprit," wrote Herman Melville in the famed novel Moby Dick.
By candlelight in the cluttered attic of a weathered seaside boarding house, those pained memories are recounted to Melville through the doleful aged eyes and tormented soul of Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a lad of fourteen when he set sail aboard the Essex, at the time on the verge of manhood, though the transformation occurred quick enough, by the time the ship sailed a mere seven miles round the bend of Cape Cod.
The crusty old salt spouts the entire tale in one night to the struggling author so he could have material for a novel, and Nickerson can comply with his wife's need for income.
It is believed Melville fashioned the prose of Moby Dick around the dramatic events that befell the Essex's 1821 voyage. Though the book is highly acclaimed now and throughout the twentieth century, purported to be one of America's greatest pieces of literature, it received no fan fair at the time of it's publishing in 1851.
Truth be told, the scenes depicted in the film between Nickerson and Melville never happened in real life and Melville's real inspiration for Moby Dick came from First Mate Owen Chase's account of the events which were actually ghost written by a Harvard educated chap, published a few years after the sinking, thirty years before Melville penned Moby Dick.
The artistic crafting of these facts by Director/Filmmaker Ron Howard does make for a wonderful cinematic diving off point for the film. The crusty whaler, whose shadowy eyes floated the painful reminiscences of the months floating at sea is the perfect mouthpiece, so burdened by the unspeakable truths of the past that he had to unburden his soul to the struggling writer, a man equally burdened by self-doubt, best expressed by Melville's poignant proclamation in the film, "I'm compelled to write this story or I feel I shall never write again. While I fear that whatever I write will not be as good as it should be."
Nickerson was the classic native Nantucketer, one of those young lads who used the harbor packed with a labyrinth of wharf houses, windmills, ropewalks and all manner of ships, as their playground as children. they could climb ratlines like monkeysand lay out yardarms with nonchalance having mimicked the actions of the whalers in their play in preparation for their predestined life as mariners.
The second class breed of whaler, embodied in the First mate Owen Chase (Chris Helmsworth) was a "goof" or mainlander. Chase was a descendant of a farmer which made him from the wrong side of the tracks, as we say today, not a native born islander, though in this case Chase's seafaring instincts were considered "fishier" than many of the whaling ships Captains born of wealthy seafaring lineage. He embodied the seamanship and audacious character, globular brain, and ponderous heart that made the rest of the crew want to follow him.
The last sharp point in the triangle of main characters in this film was Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who was given the command of the Essex only by pecking order of his high standing relatives in the whaling industry, not by his superior force of command that is usually wrought by many years in savage waters having spilled tons upon tons of whaling gore. Great men are made through a certain morbid-ness that had not yet touched the very green life of George Pollard.
In most instances the meat of the triangle was filled up by seaworthy Negroes, since most of the native Indians of Nantucket had died away. But that group was not represented in the film, just one lone black cook whom ended up being the first desperate meal for the shipwrecked crew once the rations were depleted after a months time stranded at sea.
Though the whaling action scenes were action packed and charmed by live breathing whales, the film just skims by the history of the whaling industry in New England, which is actually quite fascinating. So here is a bit of it you will only get in the best-selling book, In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, that the film was based on:
In 1821, for over a hundred years, the little island of Nantucket, just 24 miles off the coast of mainland Massachusetts, was the headquarters of the global whale oil industry.
And for over a hundred years the Quakers dominated the island and the seas around it. They were a religious sect dedicated to worshipping what they called "the inner light of God" in a more individualistic manner than most structured churches. Their rigid sense of industrial purpose was focused squarely on the whaling industry. though the profits were enormous, and a majority of Quakers became wealthy, their rules of behavior spurned fancy clothes and ostentatious houses, which meant profits were almost always invested back into the lucrative whaling business and they were quite stingy with supplies and pay for the crew. In fact many sailors owed money to the whaling ship companies once they arrived back to port, mainly for clothes and other necessities they ended up having to buy on board.
One grows pale at the thought that ultimate survival under those conditions lends a man to do some unspeakable acts.
It was those acts that churned like chum on a swell in old Nickerson's guts for the term of his life and led to his embarrassment or reluctance, as well as the screenwriters, to go into matters of cannibalism too deeply in his recitations, which, thankfully, left the film somewhat ambiguous on the subject. But make no mistake, cannibalism is the only reason
the eight did survive to tell their story. Even amongst the Quakers it was a hushed acceptance that 'drawing the straws' when all hope is lost is a seamen's right.
The great unspeakable truth for the Essex, was that immediately after the shipwreck the Captain and crew knew the Societal islands were within a reasonable sailing distance while they had ample supplies to get there. It was Captain Pollard who mate the ironic and fateful decision not to sail in that direction because it was rumored the islands were swarming with cannibalistic tribes of wild men. So instead he chose a route heading east towards South America pitting them against bad currents and unfavorable winds. After a months time, after drifting about, they were a thousand miles farther away from land than when they started.
In the end they had managed over 4500 miles in their battered whale boats before only eight of them were rescued.
"In the Heart of the Sea" is an entertaining film packed with lots of drama on the high seas along with the trauma of looking deep into the black soul of a vengeful whale, where the mighty hunter becomes the prey. But ultimately it's a diary of those sailors facing a horrid fate, their barebones battle that ultimately exposes the sinew of a man's will to survive.
Actors of note: Ben Wishaw ("Q" in "Spectre") as Herman Melville has such strong screen presence you've got believe he's got a brilliant career ahead. Young Tom Holland and Cillian Murphy stood out with wonderful performances.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Helmsworth Brendan Gleeson Ben Whishaw