Saturday, December 12, 2015

Smashed By A Whale


The Hollywood film, ‘In The Heart of The Sea’, highlights the sinking of the ‘Essex’, one of the most noted marine disasters of the 19th century

Photos: Chris Helmsworth in a scene from 'In The Heart Of The Sea'; the book cover

By Shevlin Sebastian

The Hollywood film, ‘In The Heart of The Sea’, has a quiet start. In 1821, the great American writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) knocks on a boarding house door in Nantucket. He is allowed to enter after he shows a copy of a letter which he had sent earlier. It stated that Melville wanted to write about the ‘Essex’, a whaling ship that was destroyed by a massive sperm whale, in the Pacific Ocean.

The boarding house owner Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) was a 14-year-old cabin boy on the ill-fated ship and one of the few survivors.

After initially refusing, Thomas is persuaded by his wife (Michelle Fairley) to tell the tale. So, the story is told in flashback.

It starts with tension at a ship owners’ meeting where First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) had been promised the captain’s position on the ‘Essex’, but it has been given to George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), who belongs to a famous sea-faring family.

Once they start sailing, these tensions persist. Pollard makes errors like going full-sail into a squall. They barely survive that. The Essex travels long distances but is able to kill a few whales only.

The aim is to boil down the blubber, of the dead whales, and the oil is taken back and used for various industrial purposes. In one stunning scene, a small hole is made on the head of one such whale, and Thomas is pushed down, so that he can collect some blubber from the inside.

At Ecuador, a Spanish ship captain tells Pollard and Owen about a large number of whales, 3000 nautical miles away, but warns about the presence of a 100 ft sperm whale that caused six crew members to lose their lives.

But carried away by greed and ego, Pollard and Chase decide to give chase. And the inevitable happens: the whale destroys the ship. And those scenes have been shown in vivid and dramatic style, thanks to the now-supreme power of 3D special effects. Thus far, the film moves at a fairly gripping pace, but it begins to lose a bit of steam when the sailors make their way back in three boats.

For 90 days they drift in the ocean. The action slows down, as they have no food or water, and in the end, they indulge in cannibalism, when a crew member dies, although it is not shown.

Nevertheless, the film, by top director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Da Vinci Code) is worth a watch.

Riveting History

The film is based on a book by writer Nathaniel Philbrick called ‘In The Heart Of The Sea: The Tragedy Of The Whaleship Essex’. A New York Times bestseller, Philbrick won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2000 for this book. In real life, Nickerson, at the age of 71, wrote an account, while Chase wrote a 128 page book immediately after his rescue. Philbrick used both accounts.

Here are extracts from Philbrick’s book: ‘The hot July sun beat down on the old, oil-soaked timbers [of the Essex] until the temperature below was infernal, but Thomas Nickerson explored every cranny, from the brick altar of the tryworks being assembled on deck to the lightless depths of the empty hold. In between was a creaking, compartmentalized world, a living thing of oak and pine that reeked of oil, blood, tobacco juice, food, salt, mildew, tar, and smoke. “Black and ugly as she was,” Nickerson wrote, “I would not have exchanged her for a palace.”

In July of 1819 the Essex was one of a fleet of more than seventy Nantucket whaleships in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. With whale-oil prices steadily climbing and the rest of the world’s economy sunk in depression, the village of Nantucket was on its way to becoming one of the richest towns in America.’

But Philbrick’s description of cannibalism, as seen through the eyes of the sailors of the rescue ship, 'Dauphin', off the coast of Chile, is unforgettable:
First they saw bones – human bones – littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast. Then they saw the two men. They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates.

Instead of greeting their rescuers with smiles of relief, the survivors – too delirious with thirst and hunger to speak – were disturbed, even frightened. They jealously clutched the splintered and gnawed-over bones with a desperate, almost feral intensity, refusing to give them up, like two starving dogs found trapped in a pit.

Even though it is little remembered today, the sinking of the whaleship ‘Essex’ by an enraged sperm whale was one of the most well-known marine disasters of the nineteenth century. Nearly every child in America read about it in school. It was the event that inspired the climactic scene of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

But the point at which Melville’s novel ends – the sinking of the ship – was merely the starting point for the story of the real-life ‘Essex’ disaster.’ 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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