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Billy Budd

Billy Budd

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H.M.S. Avenger is headed into battle against the French fleet during the Napoleonic Wars, and the dark shadow of two recent mutinies in the English fleet concern Captain Vere (Sir Peter Ustinov). He relies on his cruel and often sadistic Master-at-Arms John Claggert (Robert Ryan) to maintain what he believes to be tenuous order and discipline aboard the ship. When a new seaman, Billy Budd (Terence Stamp), is pressed into service from a passing merchantman, his innocent, happy-go-lucky attitude quickly endears him to his messmates as well as the ship's officers. However, his charismatic naivete seems to bother Claggert, whose perverse depravity makes him resent Billy's good-natured purity, especially after the teenager's promotion to fore-top Captain. The mean-spirited Claggert unfairly plots to put him on report and ultimately perjures himself when he accuses Billy of conspiring to mutiny.

STARS: Robert Ryan, Peter Ustinov, Melvyn Douglas

123 min | Adventure, Drama, War | 1962 | Color


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A forgotten masterpiece
Billy Budd, a merchant sailor dragooned into service aboard a British warship, loves everyone around him and is loved by everyone around him. Everyone, that is, except the ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart, who sees human affection as a threat to him and his ability to do his duty as a maker of war. Billy seems to have only one flaw; he cannot speak coherently when in the grip of strong emotion, and Claggart mercilessly exploits this weakness with tragic results.
I've not read Melville's original story "Billy Budd, Foretopman" and cannot say how it compares with the great novelist's work. But this movie stands in its own right as one of the hardest-hitting dramas of its time. The conflict between law and justice, created and demanded by the circumstances of naval service in the age of sail, was never so well explored. Instead of taking the easy path of caricaturing all the ship's officers as brutal tyrants, director Peter Ustinov portrays them as men trapped into acting against their own desires. This helps lift BILLY BUDD head and shoulders above such solid but pedestrian shipboard historical dramas as DAMN THE DEFIANT! Lastly, BILLY BUDD shows that forgiveness can sometimes be harder to bear than scorn or hatred.
Outstanding performances are the order of the day. Terence Stamp's acting as Billy Budd seems natural, unforced, and human despite the nearly incredible innocence and naivete of his character. Robert Ryan is coldly malicious and calculating as the master-at-arms. Ustinov gives another great performance in a career of great performances as the conscience-tortured Captain Vere, sparking great chemistry with his fellow officers played by David McCallum and John Neville.
Many a movie since my childhood has brought a tear to my eye, but I have not *sobbed* at a movie in the past fifteen years, except once: at the end of BILLY BUDD. It is moving, passionate and poignant. Don't miss it.

Why is it so underrated?
It's not a well-known movie, but people, this is a true masterpiece. It's almost like an European art movie, there's nothing Hollywood in it. Ustinov is a sensitive director who respects and remains true to the book (a rarity). A good idea it was made in B&W, for it makes the whole thing extremely beautiful. Hail to the photographer. And a perfect cast. Ustinov, although better known for his great comic roles, is a serious, noble, sympathetic Captain Vere. Okay, he's not as attractive as Philip Langridge (who played the role in the '88 filmed stage version), but he's credible. For Billy, the incredibly young, angelic, nice, innocent Terence Stamp was a perfect choice. He looks exactly like Melville described the character, and he's truly good and lovable without being a Mary-Sue. Maybe the only "extra" is that although naive, he has some kind of wisdom: he understands Claggart and tries to befriend him. And for the master-at-arms, Robert Ryan (who was so sympathetic and tormented in The Wild Bunch) is Evil incarnate. Not your overplayed bad guy, but a silent, smiling sadist. His death scene is one of the most frightening things I've ever seen: the dies SMILING, as if he knew he has won, and that Billy would die for this, too. One must think Claggart actually WANTED to be killed. He tempts fate again and again till he gets what he deserves. Not many movies are there what made me cry, but this one did. There's much more in it than a symbolic fight between Good and Evil. Billy might be an angel, and Claggart might be a lovechild of Iago, but the actors make them human. The tragedy is that there was the possibility of loving each other. Billy had offered it, and Claggart almost fell for good, but he couldn't deny his natural depravity. As for the homoerotic undertones: yes, they are there. Especially in Ryan's Claggart. His hate is mostly an oppressed lust.
So it's a nearly-perfect movie, it really deserves more popularity. MJelville is so under-adapted! Only two versions exist for Moby Dick, and BB wasn't filmed again (at least not for cinemas) since this film.

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