A few days ago, we posted about Ric Burns’ new documentary, Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, which will be broadcast tomorrow, May 10, at 9PM on most PBS channel in the United States. I had the opportunity to watch the documentary – a review:
Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, is a sweeping and visually stunning examination of American whaling from the colonial era though its demise in the early twentieth century. It reminds us that before we acquired our addiction to petroleum, our primary source of oil was from the sea, by the hunting of the great whales. The whaling ships didn’t just hunt whales, they were also self contained oil refineries and factories at sea. They processed and prepared the the oil, baleen and whale bone and packaged it for sale. The whalers, constantly searching the seas for new whaling grounds, were also the discoverers of then unknown lands and islands in every ocean. Before America became a world power, American whalers carried the nation’s name and vision to every corner of the watery globe.
In addition to using photographs, maps and paintings, the documentarians turned the brig Niagara into a whale ship by adding davits and a try works on deck. Using live video of the converted “whale ship” Niagara, mixed with additional footage shot on the whale ship Charles Morgan, as well as silent movie footage of the Morgan in her last days of whaling, the documentary captures nineteenth century whaling in its solitary beauty, brutality, horror and wonder.
It is an ambitious documentary. Rather than just recounting the history of the whale fisheries, Ric Burns considers what the great golden age of whaling said about America – the incredible enterprise, courage, and ambition, as well as rapacity, of the whalers and of the young nation. He also considers how whaling has entered our culture and our imaginations. To accomplish this, he weaves an account of the doomed Nantucket whale ship, the Essex, into the larger story. The Essex sank after being rammed by a sperm whale in the mid-Pacific. He also tells of the young teacher, Herman Melville, who ships out on a whale ship, and by chance meets William Chase, the son of one of the survivors of the Essex. Melville will be haunted by the tale and will later write his masterpiece, Moby Dick, inspired at least in part by the tragedy of the Essex. Passages from Moby Dick are featured throughout the documentary, both to explain the world of whaling and finally to help draw various stands of the documentary together.
The documentary is deftly written and is beautifully shot and edited. Eric Jay Dolin, author of the award winning, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, and Nathaniel Phibrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, are among the “talking head” experts providing commentary and insight. Willem Dafoe serves as narrator and Robert Sean Leonard performs as the young Herman Melville.
A fascinating and worthwhile look at a past, which to paraphrase Faulkner isn’t dead. It isn’t even fully past. If you have the chance catch Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. Highly recommended.