Orson Welles Reads From Moby-Dick: The Great American Director Takes on the Great American Novel

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Ray Brad­bury Wrote the Script for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956)

The Moby Dick Big Read: Celebri­ties and Every­day Folk Read a Chap­ter a Day from the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el

A View From the Room Where Melville Wrote Moby Dick (Plus a Free Celebri­ty Read­ing of the Nov­el)

An Illus­tra­tion of Every Page of Her­man Melville’s Moby Dick

Orson Welles Reads Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in a 1977 Exper­i­men­tal Film

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.

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