Billy Budd (1962)

Billy Budd
Directed by Peter Ustinov
Written by Peter Ustinov and DeWitt Bodeen from the play by Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman based on the novel by Herman Melville
1962/UK
Allied Artists Pictures/Anglo Allied
First viewing/Netflix rental

Billy Budd: There are many ways to lie, Mr. Claggert, but there is only one way to tell the truth.

The acting is the thing in this symbolic maritime tragedy.

Angelic young Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) is everyone’s favorite among the crew on the merchant ship Rights of Man.  It is the Napoleonic Wars and impressment is a constant threat to merchant sailors.  Sure enough, the HMS Avenger commanded by Post Captain James Vere (Peter Ustinov) arrives and selects Billy as the likeliest fighting man from the ship.  Billy greets this turn of events will cheerful equanimity.  He soon becomes the favorite of almost everyone on the Avenger.

Everyone, that is, is except Master of Arms John Claggert (Robert Ryan).  Claggert is sadist that mercilessly works the men under him and is as widely hated as Billy is loved. The thing is that Claggert seems to have a need to be hated.  He begins to plot Billy’s destruction.  Captain Vere is eventually left with a dreadful dilemma.  With Melvyn Douglas as an ancient mariner and a host of British character actors.

The Christ symbolism is applied here with a trowel, just as it was in the play and, I imagine, the novel.  But the acting is so strong that it overcomes some pretty clunky dialogue. Director Ustinov made marvelous use of the sea setting and the services of cinematographer Robert Krasker (The Third Man).  Recommended.

The DVD I rented contained a terrific commentary in the form of a conversation between Steven Soderbergh and the erudite and amusing Terence Stamp.

Terence Stamp was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor for his film debut (despite playing the lead).

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