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Hollywood goes A-Whaling

Exhibition Dates: December 2015 – September 2016

Thanks to the generosity of Warner Bros. Pictures, this exhibition featured four costumes on loan from the film In the Heart of the Sea. Designed to replicate historical garments of Nantucket in the 1820s, these pieces were worn by actors of the characters Owen Chase, Captain George Pollard, Jr., Thomas Nickerson, and Matthew Joy.

In the Heart of the Sea is a fictionalized account of the true story of the sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex in the South Pacific by an enormous bull sperm whale. Much of the film focuses on the crew’s trials to survive for thousands of miles in the open sea in three small whaleboats and the moral dilemmas they endured to stay alive.

Based on the book of the same title by Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea was directed by Ron Howard and stars Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, and Cillian Murphy. The film released in December 2015.


Romanticizing the grisly business of whaling has long been a subject for illustrated articles in popular periodicals, which proliferated during the second half of the nineteenth century. The reading public was fascinated by whaling’s elements of adventure, daring, and “hardihood” – of the men who risked everything on the high seas for the chance to make a small fortune.

Herman Melville made his name as an author in the maritime adventure genre with his popular works, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847). As with his ‘opus magnum’ Moby-Dick (1851), material for all three of these works were drawn in part from his experiences aboard the New Bedford whaleship Acushnet, on which he shipped January 3, 1841 from Union Wharf, Fairhaven.

Publications such as Harpers Weekly and Ballou’s Pictorial carried illustrated features of the world-wandering whalers doing battle with the leviathans of deep. Pre-cinematic entertainment, such as A Whaling Voyage Round the World (1848) – a massive moving panorama exhibited in cities across the United States – presaged the public’s continued fascination with courageous mariners. As a nascent motion picture industry emerged in America in the 1890s after Edison’s 1894 demonstrations of his Kinetoscope, seafaring adventure pictures became a Hollywood staple.

Moby-Dick was loosely adapted for film in an early Warner Bros. silent picture titled The Sea Beast (1926) starring John Barrymore – it was subsequently remade in 1930 and retitled Moby-Dick.

Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), a whaling adventure filmed in New Bedford featured actual whaling sequences and the last two vessels of New Bedford’s old whaling fleet, CHARLES W. MORGAN and WANDERER.  Directed by Elmer Clifton, the film was a commercial success and launched the career of Clara Bow, the “It Girl.”

A remake of Down to the Sea in Ships (1948) was released by Twentieth Century Fox Studios, starring Lionel Barrymore, Richard Widmark and Dean Stockwell. It mentions New Bedford prominently in a rewritten storyline, and was premiered in New Bedford with Widmark in attendance.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer followed with All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953), based on the whaling novel by Ben Ames Williams.

John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) starring Gregory Peck was dubbed in several languages and played throughout Europe. It premiered in New Bedford during for a three-day celebration with cast members in attendance. It later aired regularly on television, introducing Yankee whaling to wide audiences.

Several adaptations of Moby-Dick have since been produced for television, including cartoons and miniseries.

In 2016, author Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling book, In the Heart of the Sea is the latest major motion picture to bring the subject of America whaling to the silver screen. Directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, the film recounts Owen Chase’s 1823 Narrative of the Nantucket whaleship ESSEX, which was sunk by a sperm whale – a well-known incident among whalemen – and a major influence on Melville’s greatest work, Moby-Dick.

Last modified: September 20, 2016