Intentionally or not, Ron Howard’s new film In the Heart of the Sea is very politically incorrect. Sober and ambitious 19th century Protestant males, under a large American flag, for unapologetically capitalist purposes, courageously launch into distant and dangerous seas to harpoon whales whose oil will light the homes and streets of the civilized world.
Many reviewers are aghast, some claiming the film is just not serious enough for sophisticates. But one Seattle reviewer was more candid. “No one in the year 2015 wants to see a movie about sentient mammals being slaughtered for their oil,” which is an “eco-horror,” he tut tuts. “Nineteenth-century whaling is resource management at its worst, its rapaciousness [in the film] deservedly near collapse.”
But an opening scene portrays how contemporaries saw the whaling industry of Nantucket, whose global reach had excited admiration from no less than British statesman Edmund Burke (“And pray, sir, what in the world is equal to it?”). A pious group of black-clad male and female Quakers, who were the island’s dominant spiritual force during its whaling days, join in prayer at the docks as the whaling ship departs. They pray for a rich harvest that their island might prosper, that the world’s cities might be lit to clear away the night shadows of sin, and that Christian civilization might further advance. (These Quakers were also relatively racially progressive, and blacks both in the film and real life served with distinction on the ship.)
Perhaps, and likely, these sober Protestant entrepreneurs are meant to seem silly or even hypocritical. At least some incredulous postmodern viewers will see them as so. But the brief scene is quite ennobling and recalls when the devout still prayed for God to bless harvests, whether of crops or sea life, that society might live and even prosper. Shoppers of Whole Foods will have trouble relating. The Quaker prayer scene also recalls the formidable Orson Welles portrayal of Father Mapples prophetically preaching about Jonah in the Whalers Chapel at the opening of the 1950s version of Moby Dick.
In the Heart of the Sea tells the story behind the story of Moby Dick, whose author Herman Melville is interviewing the last survivor of a Nantucket whaler destroyed by a great white whale in the Pacific. Melville, although himself a religious doubter, wrote a theological classic shaped by New England Calvinism, in which the obsessive pursuit of a mighty whale becomes a journey of divine judgment.
Nantucket was more informed by Quaker notions of an inner light than Calvinist preoccupation with predestination. But both shared early Protestant notions of calling, thrift, earthly dominion and divinely ordained human progress. God could not be escaped, and His will was a constant cause of reflection and query.
After the great whale has destroyed their ship, the first mate asks, “What offense did we give God? Our arrogance? Our greed?” The captain replies it is the demonic and murderous whale who has defied God, not they, as they are “earthly kings” and “supreme beings made in God’s own likeness,” to “bend nature to our will.”
Both first mate and captain, upon return to Nantucket, refuse pleas to suppress their story for the purpose of profit and public relations. The ship’s survivor in his nocturnal interview with Melville, lighted by whale oil, is reluctant to recall the cannibalism to which the crew had resorted. But Melville assures him the Devil prefers unconfessed secrets. For Quakers and Calvinists, the conscience stands without intermediary before God.
In the closing scene, the survivor asks Melville if it’s true that oil has been discovered beneath the soil of Pennsylvania. Indeed it had, transforming the world with a fuel far more accessible than whale oil, raising the living standards of hundreds of millions, and even ultimately saving the whales from the “eco-horror” of further “slaughter.”
In ways that the whalers and Quakers of Nantucket had not dreamed to imagine, God had answered their prayers.