In the Heart of the Sea is an adaptation of a book by the same name, which recounts the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820, the story that loosely inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. The book is really excellent, but the movie is dead boring, and it was accordingly keelhauled at the box office. This movie ought to have been made by Werner Herzog, and most certainly not by Ron Howard, who, while technically precise as a director, is simply not interested in the kind of mucky morality and literal blood and guts that inevitably comes up in survival tales. Here’s a bunch of bonkers stuff that actually happened with the Essex, and how the movie f*cks up one of the best maritime disaster stories in American history.
The Essex was two days into a two-and-a-half-year voyage when a squall nearly sank the ship. It was the first of many bad breaks, and even before their ill-fated trip into the South Pacific, the crew was superstitious and paranoid—one guy deserted in Ecuador. The storm makes it into the movie but all the superstition and self-feeding fear of the crew is lost in a classist pissing match between Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Who gives a sh*t about class warfare when people are eating one another? NO ONE—which is pretty much who saw In the Heart of the Sea.
At one point the crew moored at Floreana Island in the Galapagos to resupply. One dickhead crew member set a fire as a joke and ended up burning down the whole island, which caused the extinction of a species of tortoise. This entire incident is left out, presumably because it does not fit into the story of Heroic Man vs. Nature Howard is trying to tell. Too bad—that would have been a much more interesting scene than the dumb framing device Howard keeps cutting back to, of an old Essex survivor (Brendan Gleeson) telling the story to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw).
Of the actual whale attack, the movie is mostly accurate but for one crucial detail. In the movie Chase harpoons the whale after its first strike to the ship, which results in the whale breaking the ship’s mast and causing the final destruction of the Essex. In reality, Chase was not a Grade-A dumbass and he recognized that harpooning the whale might enrage it further, so he left it the f*ck alone. It ended up ramming the ship again anyway, because Nature Justice is unrelenting, but Howard, for some bizarre reason, tried to remake the story of the Essex into a story of greed and hubris, and not just an example of Nature’s inherent inhospitality toward Man.
After the Essex sank, the survivors were stranded for months at sea. In a moment of sterling irony, Chase persuaded the others, against Pollard’s wishes, to not sail for the Marquesas, their nearest hope of rescue, because the natives there might be cannibals. And then, in order to survive, Chase and the others inevitably resorted to cannibalism. But Howard omits Chase’s bout of (racist) superstition altogether, robbing the story of its irony. He also left out the part about the guys who wouldn’t relinquish the bones of their friends, which they’d been gnawing on, to the people who rescued them.
At the end of the movie, Chase is said to have gone on to a career as a merchant captain, but really he kept whaling for twenty years. He was plagued by headaches and night terrors for the rest of his life, and started hoarding food in the attic of his house. He was eventually institutionalized. But sure, happy ending, nice and pat. No life-long trauma to be seen.
The story of the Essex is one of the most brutal survivalist tales in recorded history, but Howard doesn’t seem all that interested in it as a survivalist tale. He wants to make it a metaphor for something else, but that story already exists and it’s called Moby Dick. The Revenant is a self-important windbag movie, but at least Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu is dedicated to portraying the harsh reality of surviving on the frontier. There’s nothing harsh or even really dirty about In the Heart of the Sea, because Howard seems loathe to actually get his hands dirty with the story. It’s too bad—in the right, Herzogian hands, this could have been one of the great Man vs. Nature epics in cinema. Instead it’s a boring, lame Moby Dick spin-off.