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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Updated on October 15, 2019
Robert J Sodaro profile image

Robert J. Sodaro is an American-born writer, editor, and digital graphic artist who loves writing about comics, movies, and literature.

In the Heart of the Sea

The story on which Moby Dick was based
The story on which Moby Dick was based | Source


In The Heart of the Sea: Rated PG-13“ (2 hours, 2 minutes)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw

Directed by: Ron Howard

Based on Actual Events

While it is probably safe to say that while we all may not have actually read the original Herman Melville story (or even the Cliff Notes) of Captain Ahab and his epic clash with the great white whale known as Moby Dick, we all do know the basic elements of the tale itself. At its core, it is the account of the captain of a whaling ship and his arch nemesis, a monstrous whale. Told from the perspective of a crewmember named Ishmael who relates the larger-than-life saga about his ship’s captain, and his life aboard the whaling ship, Pequod. As it turns out, Ahab is seeking revenge on Moby Dick, which — on the captain’s previous whaling expedition — not only destroyed his ship but severed the captain’s leg off at the knee.

In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea (DVD)
In the Heart of the Sea (DVD)
In the winter of 1820, the New England whaling ship Essex was assaulted by something no one could believe: a whale of mammoth size and will, and an almost human sense of vengeance. The real-life maritime disaster would inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. But that told only half the story. “In the Heart of the Sea” reveals the encounter’s harrowing aftermath, as the ship’s surviving crew is pushed to their limits and forced to do the unthinkable to stay alive. Braving storms, starvation, panic and despair, the men will call into question their deepest beliefs, from the value of their lives to the morality of their trade, as their captain searches for direction on the open sea and his first mate still seeks to bring the great whale down.

The Story of the Essex

While the novel itself was considered something of a commercial failure at the time of its initial release, over the subsequent years its reputation grew, and it eventually achieved its current status as one of America’s great novels. In fact, the book’s opening sentence; “Call me Ishmael.” is considered one of the world’s most famous literary openings. Well — much to our own surprise — as it turns out, Moby Dick was actually based upon real-world events. (Who knew?)

In the Heart of the Sea - Final Trailer [HD]

The Book by Nathaniel Philbrick

For a relatively short period during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Nantucket — a lonely crescent of sand wedged between the bustling state of Massachusetts and the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean — was not only the whaling capital of the world, but one of the wealthiest communities in America. Founded on events that actually occurred to the New England whaling ship Essex, during one particularly fateful voyage over the winter of 1820, grew the story of the of the great white whale. According to the actual account, the Essex was assaulted by a mammoth whale, possessing a size and will and almost human sense of vengeance which repeatedly attacked the ship; an event that no one could possibly have anticipated.

Man against the Sea

Hunting the great whale
Hunting the great whale | Source

The Most Dangerous Catch

This then was the real-life maritime disaster that would inspire Herman Melville’s book. However, (and according to this film, which is based upon the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick), that is not the entirety of the story either. Philbrick’s book and Ron Howard’s film goes beyond that to reveal the horrible details of the Essex’s fateful encounters with the real-life whale, along with the harrowing aftermath. As the ship’s surviving crew is pushed to their limits, forcing them to do unthinkable things to stay alive. Braving storms, starvation, panic, and despair, the crew of the Essex are required to call into question their own deepest beliefs, the value of their lives, as well as their own morality, all while their captain attempts to find direction on the open sea to bring them to safety and his first mate seeks to still bring down the killer whale.

Out to Sea

Assessing the situation
Assessing the situation | Source

In Our Opinion

While we personally were unaware of the true tale behind the iconic book, we were eager to watch this film (we unabashedly admit to being a fan of Howard’s directorial work), and even though we did enjoy the film, we found it to be far more depressing than we would have initially imagined. True, all of the actors did fine jobs, the cinematic vistas at sea were tremendous (as were the insights into whaling itself), and the engagements with the whale were particularly thrilling, we still felt that the film still seemed to leave us wanting.

A Man Possessed

That look of determination
That look of determination | Source

In Conclusion

The film starts out with Melville (Whishaw) seeking out Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) to relate to him the story of the Essex. At first he refuses, but then is convinced by his wife to do so. Going forward from here, the tale jumps back and forth between what happened on the Essex and Nickerson speaking with Melville. So, instead of just the story moving forward, we keep jumping back and forth between the action on the ship and the tale itself being told. Still, as stated, we were singularly unprepared for how dark this story was going to become. Needless to say, even with all that, we did (mostly) enjoy the film and do recommend it for our readers who are fans of Melville, Howard, and/or Hemsworth.

© 2016 Robert J Sodaro


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