Before oil, before gas, and alongside coal, one other energy source powered the newly industrialised world: whale oil. Obtained from the blubber of whales and often forgotten in the history of energy, whale oil primarily powered lamps: indeed, it powered colonial America.
Director Ron Howard’s new film In the Heart of the Sea tells two stories: one of the ordinary men who sacrificed themselves for the short-term profits of deep-sea whaling, and another of the origins of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Linking both is the Essex, a real ship that departed Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1820 with the brief of returning with 2000 barrels of whale oil.
Captained by an incompetent member of the aristocratic class but really led by its First Mate, Owen Chase, played by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, the Essex floated in the doldrums of the Atlantic Ocean before finding itself hunted by a mammoth, white-speckled bull-whale. After leaving the Essex all but ruined, the beast left the remaining crew to drift and starve for more than ninety days, continuing its pursuit all the time.
In late 18th Century New England, the maritime legend came to inspire Melville to write the great American novel he had always dreamed, yet doubted, he could write. In the Heart of the Sea tells this story behind the story of Moby Dick in a meta narrative device: as recounted by the last remaining survivor of the Essex (Brendan Gleeson), who reveals his memories fifty years later to Melville, played by an always-excellent Ben Whishaw.
The film has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood blockbuster: a fabled disaster in which man is pitted against nature, pitched by its marketers as an epic action tragedy. Is it wrong then, I asked Hemsworth during a recent promotional visit to Sydney, that I found myself rooting for the whale rather than the whalers?
“So was I,” Hemsworth responds. “Very early on, that was a discussion. I said, ‘he’s gotta be the hero, we’re the villains’. Then the whole thing turns around and hopefully we have learned a lesson. Ultimately, it was in the script to ensure that Owen did have some sort of epiphany that maybe what we’re doing to nature, and this obsession with the destruction of nature, is wrong. The period the film is set in was a real turning point; they then started pulling oil out of the ground and butchering nature in a whole other way, and that’s another discussion.”
“That was the exciting thing about the technology,” he adds, “that you could make the whale a personality.”
It’s true: though journalists often describe the landscape as a character in films, here, the whale is a real character.
In the Heart of the Sea strikes me as the kind of old-fashioned, entertaining film that Hollywood used to do so well with so much more frequency. It’s a classic American myth; a big-budget, big-screen film founded on the archetypal narrative beats that we as audiences have internalised from the work of Hollywood greats like Steven Spielberg. A real Ron Howard film, in other words, exactly what we’ve come to expect from the director of such crowd-pleasing hits as Apollo 13.
But this is not the history of the US we’re used to being sold. There is a scene, particularly lasting in my mind, in which the film’s themes declare themselves. In the remote Atlantic, the crew of the Essex come across their first whale herd. After the jubilance of hearing that first whalesong – “Thar she blows! All hands on deck”– comes the business of actually slaying the beautiful beasts. The crew splinters into smaller boats to get closer to the pod. Finally, after some dicey manoeuvring, Hemsworth’s character harpoons a father whale with Thor-esque precision. The bull-whale hurtles toward the sea-floor, threatening to pull Chase’s puny dinghy down, too.
At last the bull’s carcass floats to the surface, and as the crew reign him in, we move to a close-up of whale-blood splattered on Chase’s face, and we linger there as he takes in the slaughter. In this moment, I realised that the film is actually about something: the moral costs involved in using whales as the fuel of early industry; the arrogance and greed upon which commerce is founded.
“That was one of the moments: a realisation [by my character] that ‘this is what I do, but is it right?’” says Hemsworth, whose performance as Owen Chase betrays his Home and Away origins and, quite simply, convinces. “The parallel of men going off to war was a topic of discussion. That was what it was like for these guys, they go for two or three years. There was no other industry. If you were from Nantucket, this is what you did. You couldn’t go off and get another career, and it was brutal and barbaric”.
The starvation sequences, with Chase’s remaining crew drifting in the doldrums, show another dimension of the human cost of the whale oil trade. Hemsworth and the cast were put on a kind of Essex Whaleship diet – a huge psychological challenge for the actor.
“We started off on two and a half thousand calories at the beginning of the shoot,” says Hemsworth. “We shot somewhat in sequence, and those calories just got less and less, until the last sort of week or two was at 500 [calories]. We didn’t stay there for long, that’s when you do longer lasting damage, but just for that brief window, it was brutal. The mood swings, and how outraged you become at the most trivial things. ‘How dare he?! What did he just do?’” Then the neurosis set in. “We’d sit there on the boats and the whole crew would be having a full service [lunch], hamburgers, and we’d say, ‘they’re doing that on purpose! Why are they doing this?!’ It was a bit Gollum-esque.”
In the current film industry climate, it’s astonishing that In the Heart of the Sea even got made. Although it’s an adaptation of a book (Nathan Fillbrick’s non-fiction best-seller), it’s not an adaptation of a comic book. Even for proven directors in Hollywood, it’s increasingly tough to finance original films about actual or imaginable humans outside of licensed, merchandised superhero ‘storyworlds’.
“Especially at this scale,” says Hemsworth. “It’s expensive, a film like this, and I think that was what had frightened people, because the script had been around for a while. A lot of producers I spoke with were like, ‘that’s one of my favourite scripts, but it’s huge’. To do it justice, you had to do it on this scale. And I’m thankful that they did and with this amount of energy.”