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A nice, innocent kid getting brutalized by an incredibly-sadistic 1700s
ship officer is not always easy to watch, but this is one of the better
under-publicized films of its day. It sill holds up, some 40-plus years
later, and I'm still wondering when a DVD will come out. The great
cinematography alone makes this cry out for a good DVD transfer.
It was an apt choice to cast Robert Ryan as the sadistic "Claggart." Ryan played mostly villains in his career and is extremely effective in that role here as an intelligent-but-sick-and-vicious bully. In fact, his character in Billy Budd remains one of the most memorable villains I've seen in a half century of movie watching. It isn't just his deeds. The looks on his face alone as he delivers his lines make him fascinating.
Peter Ustinov gives a great performance as the captain of the ship and a man who has to make a big, big decision about Mr. Budd, played by a young and boyish-looking Terrence Stamp. The character "Billy Budd" is about as pure and innocent as some of the characters Jennifer Jones played in the 1940s, such as Cluny Brown, Bernadette Soubirous or Jennie Appleton. Also of interest is Melvyn Douglas as the aging seaman.
This is simply a powerful and very involving film, one that is hard to forget.
Peter Ustinov is generally a lot better at being a raconteur, chat-show
guest and portly, engaging presenter of documentaries than film director,
but this adaptation of Melville's short novel (note that the screenplay is
based on a previous stage version) is surprisingly gripping. Terence Stamp,
in his first movie role, is excellent as the benign life-force, Billy.
Pressganged into service aboard a Royal Navy Man'o'War (clunky symbolism -
the ship Billy leaves is called the "Rights of Man"), he soon wins over the
crew with his guileless respect for justice and fair play. Robert Ryan is
superb as Claggart, although perhaps this actor's tremendous capacity for
sheer charmless evil overbalances the plot. When Claggart is struck down
by the momentarily enraged Billy, he dies with a smile on his face, a detail
which isn't in the book. It makes Claggart into a malevolent genius, when
Melville wrote him as a preternaturally bitter and empty man. But that's
showbiz for you.
There's a lovely scene between Stamp and Ryan, presumably missed by those who refuse to recognise the latter's genius, in which Billy almost manages to win Claggart over; you can see Ryan's eyes getting almost misty (he was a great eye actor) as he contemplates the spectacle of his own bleakness compared to Billy's warmth. But then, as he suddenly growls "You would charm me, too. Get away!" it's as if he suspected Billy if coming onto him. Remarkable touch.
John Neville and David McCallum are fine as the officers with tortured consciences; Ustinov has to carry off the difficult moral turnaround, kind of the opposite of what Fonda spends a whole film doing in "Twelve Angry Men", and has seldom acted so well. Perhaps in the book he's a less significant character, but for dramatic purposes the role obviously needed expanding, and it's done with taste and restraint. Supporting roles are all finely rendered, with Melvyn Douglas especially red-eyed and gravelly as the religious Dansker. Good stuff. And unusually for an adaptation, a sizable chunk of the dialogue is authentic Melville.
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.
Rating: **** out of ****.
If you've read the Melville story, this film will be a delightful
surprise, especially in contrast to what usually happens to film
adaptations of literature. For those of you who've never heard of
Herman Melville, it's no matter. This film can stand on its own without
reference or support from its original source.
A cheerful, innocent young man with wide eyes and blonde hair is conscripted from his commercial schooner to serve aboard an English Royal Merchant ship, which is akin to being Shang-Hai'd, but without the knock to the head. Everyone on both his old and new ship loves Billy Budd, an affable, competent young seaman who can fathom no sinister purpose in man nor beast, until he meets the master-at-arms of his new vessel.
I don't want to give away any more of the story, so give this lovely film a try if the premise interests you.
This film which was made at the now legendary, Allied Artists Studios (cough cough) is nothing short of a Masterpiece. Filmed totally on board a reconstructed Man O'War, it features Oscar level performances by Peter Ustinov, Terrance Stamp, Melvin Douglas and the performance of a lifetime by Robert Ryan (as Klaggart, the very human manifestation of evil). If one accepts this movie as a biblical allegory, then it could not end any other way. This is not your typical Hollywood fare, it is filled with intelligent performances, and good direction under difficult conditions. And it's in glorious black and white.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I am a lover of British cinema, and also coming from a Royal Navy
family background, I am surprised I have let such a gem of a movie go
unnoticed for so long.
Billy Budd is a magnificent film, well shot and beautifully cast.
Peter Ustinov, David MaCallum and Melvyn Douglas all deliver great performances, but the two film stealing performances come from Robert Ryan as Claggart, the sadistic master-at-arms and Terance Stamp as the affable and likable rating William Budd.
Set aboard a Royal Naval vessel during the height of the Napoleonic Wars, Billy Budd tells the story of one mans overwhelming kindness and goodness and its effect upon a Captain and his officers and crew.
All take Billy to their hearts except Claggart a lash-happy sadist who evil to the extreme, cannot fathom Billy's child-like innocence. He looks upon it as a sort of germ that will contaminate him in some way and sets out to destroy Budd and the high ideals he holds.
Billy, so complete in his goodness, still tries to befriend Claggart, refusing to hate him, and even defending him against an embittered crew out for Claggarts murder.
Billy's kindly disposition towards him only enrages Claggart more and serves to double his attempts to get Budd at his mercy, of which he plans to show none.
It is one such attempt that proves to be the downfall, not only of Claggart and Billy, but the whole crew.
Claggart brings a false accusation of Mutiny against Budd, in an effort to see him hanged. Billy who is unable to speak in periods of high emotion answers in the only form of expression left to him. He lashes out at Claggart dealing him a fatal blow to the head.
There follows a shipboard court-martial, where Billy is put on trial for Claggarts murder.
The Captain and his officers desperately want to acquit Billy. They knew how Claggart had been treating the men and knew in particular of his consuming hatred for Billy. They are also too aware of Billy's nature and they know murder with malice aforethought would be quite beyond him.
However, bound by the combined rules of War and that of the Navy, they have no choice but to impose the sentence of death upon Billy, and all four officers with lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes are forced to sign the article of execution.
One scene that sticks out among all of them, is when the Captain played with a humane but tortured air by Peter Ustinov, visits the condemned Budd in the cell on the night before his hanging.
He tells Billy that 'he is as inhuman in his goodness as Claggart was inhuman in his evilness' He tells Budd that he wishes he could he could have is 'fury and anger' instead of his 'admiration and respect', that had not wained, despite the Captains difficult decision.
'Don't be afraid' He says to Billy.
'I'm not afraid sir,' replies Budd, 'I've always done my duty aboard this ship, I understand that you also have to do yours' With this the Captain rushes from the cell, driven by guilt and overwhelming sadness and no longer able to look upon this man for whom he has the utmost affection but who will have to die upon his order.
I have seen many tear-jerking films, but Budd's final walk to the noose has to be one of the most heartbreaking scenes in any movie, walking slowly from officer to officer, he tries to make eye contact with all of them, flashing them his innocent smile, maybe in an effort to appease the guilt he knows they must be feeling, his final kind and selfless act.
But the officers themselves, grief stricken and guilt ridden, cannot accept this last gesture and force themselves to avert their eyes as he passes.
In the memorable line one of the ratings turns to Dansker, the old danish seaman played by Melvyn Douglas and asks why Claggart was not there witnessing the punishment. (The crew had not been told of Claggarts death which had happened only hours before) Dansker turns to the inquisitive sailor and says, 'he is here.' and turns to look towards the noose flapping unanimously in the wind.
You really feel love and pity for Billy and anger and disgust at the situation as he is drummed to the noose, hoping against hope that every beat would be the one where the Captain would take stock of his senses and reverse the sickening order.
Yet with all, the regrettable hanging takes place not without Billy uttering his final words aloud to the crew, "God bless Captain Vere" another selfless act designed to avert the crew from taking mutinous action against the officers who had brought about his execution.
The Captain, then loses all the detachment of an officer at sea and weeps aloud at the unjust murder he feels he has now committed.
This film has left a lump in my throat which I feel at this very moment, will never subside. I kind, good and decent human being, being sacrificed because of the law....a law that had to operate without the necessary justice which is supposed to back it up.
The Navy of the day I suppose had no choice...today the circumstances would have been taken into account, they would have been carefully weighed on the scales of justice before the sword was used with the other hand.
This film is not to be missed... but the emotionally weak, like I so obviously am, may find the end very upsetting and disturbing.
Nothing can touch the book (quality-wise), but this Ustinov-directed
epic of '62 is clearly under-rated for it's time with some fine
performances with beautiful B/W cinematography. Ustinov also plays
Captain Vere in a subdued and strange performance. Robert Ryan (superb
actor is right on the money as Claggart. Terence Stamp (in his film
debut, I believe) is the perfect Billy Budd and well deserving of his
supporting Oscar nomination.
An 8 out of 10. Best performance = Terence Stamp. Melvyn Douglas is crusty as usual and David McCallum is well-cast and officious. This was adapted from one of the classic American novels so the film could only be criticized rightfully, but a stunning achievement in retrospect!
Most people remember Herman Melville as the author of Moby Dick. Its hard to believe that when Melville's novel came out that most critics gave it negative reviews and it basically ended Melville's career. He spent most of the rest of his life working as a customs inspector on the New York city docks and was forgotten when he died. It was only after his death that his greatness was realized. Melville died in 1891, but Billy Budd wasn't published until 1924. A man named Raymond Weaver found the manuscript. I first read BB as a student in high school and I read it again in college. It is a wonderful book with symbolism and a message like the film Saving Silverman (with its message about the power of friedship). Billy Budd is a sort of Christ like figure (in the book Melville says that sailors took pieces of the scaffold where he was hanged as they would a fragment of the Cross). John Claggart is evil incarnate, some people have said his initials JC mean he is an anti-Christ. Captain Vere was forced to make a terrible decision to hang the beloved young sailor after he accidentally killed Claggart. Claggart knew that Billy had a speech impediment when he was scared and accused him of treason and Billy fatally struck him. I hated what they did to him, but it was sort of like reading about the Crucifixtion. I don't know what Herman Melville's religious beliefs were, but he wrote a tale like a Biblical morality play that I will always remember. Peter Ustinov is a real giant among actors. He is a director a writer and a true man of the world (he has won two Academy Awards for his acting). He did such a wonderful job directing this film, its a shame he never directed another. He is wonderful as the Conscience stricken Captain Vere. Terence Stamp was just getting started in films and gives a fine performance as Billy Budd. He does a wonderful job portraying Billy naiveness and goodness. Robert Ryan is also excellent as the evil and sinister Claggart. Ryan was excellent at playing bad guys like Colonel Breed in The Dirty Dozen, but he was never better here. Claggart is evil with a human face. I remember one scene where he orders a sailor savagely whipped and you see by his facial expression that he is almost sexually aroused at the site. You think to yourself how sick this man really is. He even wears black throughout the film. What is interesting to me reading Melville's book is that it was written a century before the term "serial killer" "psychopath" and "sociopath" were even coined and yet yet, there is a part of the book where he describes the fiendish Claggart and it is one of the best defintions of the sociopathic mind ever written! Melville really was a genius. There is a man named Harold Schechter who has written a number of books on famous serial killers and he quoted Melville's book in one of them. I wrote to him and he said that Melville was such a genius that it didn't suprise him that he was able to define what a sociopath and a diabolical mind was a century before FBI profilers did. In fact, his defintion could fit Lieutenant Loren Singer on JAG. She was a diabolical mind as well.
The flick is set in the end Century XVIII upon English-French war , in
Napoleon time , 1797 . Actor and director Peter Ustinov has directed a
few films , this is the best . The movie centers about a Young named
Billy (Terence Stamp's film debut) who's obligatorily enlisted in a war
ship . Billy Budd is a crew member of the British merchant ship the
Rights of Man sailing off the coast of Spain , when the ship is briefly
commandeered by the British Naval Ship , the HMS Avenger . There Billy
will have to take on a nasty deputy (Robert Ryan) with tragical results
Terence Stamp's interpretation as an innocent , naive , thoughtful and sensitive young is extraordinary . Robert Ryan plays correctly to the villain and ominous man . The support cast is featured by famous secondary actors : John Neville (Baron Munchausen) , David McCallum (UNCLE Agency series ) , Ray McNally (The mission) and Neall MacGinnis (Jason and the Argonauts). The film is based on a Herman Melville's novel (author of Moby Dick) . Herman Melville had been writing poetry for 30 years when he returned to fiction with "Billy Budd" in late 1888. Still unfinished when he died in 1891, it was forgotten and it was finally published in 1924 . An independent producer acquired the screen rights in 1956 and assigned the adaptation to DeWitt Bodeen and subsequently sold to producer/director Robert Rossen, who worked with Bodeen on a second screenplay . By the time it reached the screen in 1962, it had been sold to Peter Ustinov , who wrote the final shooting script but gave Bodenn a co-writer credit .
The runtime movie is overlong and results to be a little bit boring because happens little adventures ; however , being very interesting and thought-provoking . Cinematography by Robert Krasker (superproductions' photographer of the 60s) is riveting . Anthony Hopkins musical score is fascinating . Acting as ship commander and direction by recently deceased Peter Ustinov is excellent . Rating: 7.5/10 , above average . It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking movie . Well worth watching
I saw this when it first came out and loved it! The makers of this film
(from the UK) are to be praised for addressing a subject historically
so controversial that their countrymen could object it has anti-British
content based on familiar stereotypes. Yet it is undeniably true. The
British Empire thrived on a system of enforced labor, which included
plantation slavery, pressgangs in the Navy and crimping of soldiers
into the Army. The practice of stealing American sailors off of
American ships and forcing them into the British service remained a
vexed question between the two countries even after the revolution.
Americans who had won their freedom in the revolution had to surrender
it to the same tyrants on the high seas. "Billy Budd" shows the tragic
injustice of being forced to serve an enemy, suffer his contempt and be
punished for the natural act of defending oneself.
Technically, the film couldn't be better. The drama is excellently drawn in well lit black and white and cuts from scene to scene in a manner that never sacrifices clarity to suspense, telling the story as well as it can be told on screen. The close ups reveal all the nuances of character implied in Melville's great novel, making very accessible the emotion of righteous indignation, which is the film's final message. Today, a production crew like the one that made "Billy Budd" could make itself very busy faithfully translating literary classics onto the screen.
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