If you took a poll to determine in whose voice most readers would like to hear their audio books, I imagine Orson Welles would land pretty high on the list. And if you took a poll to determine which book most readers would rather approach in audio form than paper form, I imagine Herman Melville’s weighty but undeniably important (and still literarily fascinating) Moby-Dick would land pretty high on the list. Unfortunately for us, Welles never sat down to get the entirety of Moby-Dick on tape, but he did give the book a few readings on film, rounded up today for your enjoyment.
Most famously, Welles appeared in John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of the novel as Father Mapple, deliverer of the sermon on Jonah heard by the narrator Ishmael and his bunkmate Queequeg early on in the story, just before they sign on to the Pequod. Possessed of an interest of his own in Melville’s masterwork, Welles used his paycheck from the cameo to bring Moby-Dick to the stage. But he also wanted to do something cinematic with the material, as evidenced by the other two videos here: readings he shot in 1971, during production of The Other Side of the Wind. In them, he speaks the novel’s immortal opening line, “Call me Ishmael.”
Though he may sound even more compelling in Ishmael’s role than in Father Mapple’s, these clips do make you wonder what, or which character, stoked Welles’ fascination with Moby-Dick in the first place. Certainly we can draw obvious parallels between him and the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab in terms of their tendency toward grand, all-consuming, impossible-seeming projects. Then again, Ahab labors under the idea that man can, with sufficient will, directly perceive all truths, while Welles made F for Fake, so perhaps he was a questioning, skeptical Ishmael after all. Whomever he identified with, this pillar of American cinema must have had big plans for this pillar of American literature — which, alas, we can now only struggle to perceive, just as Ahab and Ishmael struggle to perceive the form of the whale deep in the water.
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.