Billy Budd (1962) Poster

(1962)

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9/10
Ryan's 'Claggart ' Unfogettable
ccthemovieman-112 March 2006
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.
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Admirable stab at Melville fable (warning: reveals plot points)
Lexo-28 October 1999
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.
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8/10
Touching and Moving.
Scaramouche20047 February 2005
Warning: 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.
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A Half Forgotten Classic the Deals with Good an Evil
StarCastle9917 July 2002
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.
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7/10
Wonderful story of the sea, and a great companion to Melville's original
roegrocks3 September 2001
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.
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10/10
A forgotten masterpiece
Daniel R. Baker29 August 1999
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 ****.
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7/10
An All Peter Ustinov Product with a Brilliant Robert Ryan
ragosaal9 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
+++++++ THIS COMMENT CONTAINS SPOILERS +++++++

Sir Peter Ustinov not only acted in this film but he also produced it, directed it and helped in its writing and the result is a more than acceptable one. Based on a "Moby Dick"'s author Herman Melville short story, "Billy Budd" stands as a most enjoyable and entertaining advnenture at sea during the war between England and France at the ending of the 18th century.

What impressed me most about this fine movie was Robert Ryan's portrayal as the bitter-ed, resentful and mean master at arms of the warship; Ryan has played a lot of villains in his long career and very good too, but his performance as Claggart is simply masterful. The man hates the world and everything on it and when the innocent and naive young sailor Billy Budd comes to his ship he naturally hates his simple way of seeing life and enjoy it under any circumstances. The dialogue on the deck scene at night between them is great acting and for a moment you even think Budd's simplicity and kindness will reach Ryan's stone heart, but it doesn't; in fact when he is accidentally killed by Budd at the end, Ryan even shows a sort of last triumph smile for he knows what is coming to the young sailor. No doubt Ryan's Claggart is one of the all time villains in movies and one of his best performances.

Good for Ustinov too in a film you could call his own.

Just for the record: in Argentina "Billy Budd" was renamed as "La Fragata Infernal" (something like "The Frigate from Hell").
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8/10
Under-rated Melville Classic!
shepardjessica-111 October 2004
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!
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10/10
Why is it so underrated?
Conspirator Slash2 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
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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10/10
Outstanding in Every Way
AJ Averett13 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"When is justice compatible with speed?"

Asked of the Captain in the aftermath of Claggart's death, this is one of the transcendent questions of the story - and one of any legal system.

From the compact novel of the same name by Herman Melville, this adaptation by co-star Peter Ustinov - who also directed - is a marvel.

Production value is excellent throughout, in particular, cinematography and set direction.

The performances are completely idiomatic and uniformly superb. Special mention go to Terence Stamp, of course, as Billy Budd, who emotes genuine innocence and perfect trust - and Robert Ryan, who is thoroughly despicable as the sadistic Claggart, the lone vestige of humanity that flickers once through his tortured soul brilliantly executed. Melvyn Douglas wears the tragedy and weariness of the world on his face with a tear-stained countenance, and speaks it movingly with eloquence.

"We do not deal with justice, but with law," says the Captain, and Billy's fate is sealed. After the sentence is carried out, he laments in anguish, "I am not fit to do the work of God... or the Devil." But, then, who amongst us is?
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10/10
Stamp Acts Up A Storm!
ThePrinceofPeas6 November 1999
Stamp's finest performance.

The screen is never quite the same after watching Stamp's portrayal of Budd. An elegant, stunning performance by one of the finest actors of our time. As the film sails on, you are left to adjudicate a moral dilemma...one that produces a certain sinking feeling.

Stamp's brave portrayal will always be with you!
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7/10
Beautifully-made, engrossing and intense
moonspinner556 July 2007
Intriguing adaptation of Herman Melville's novel (and Louis O. Coxe's play) about a good-natured seaman aboard a British warship in 1797 who is ultimately pushed to his limit by the cruel Master at Arms. Peter Usintov, who plays the ship's captain, also directed, co-produced and co-wrote this script, and he gets amazing lead performances from Robert Ryan and Terence Stamp. Ryan, as the hateful superior, is morally reprehensible without ever becoming inhuman--a delicious feat for an actor; clear-eyed, big-hearted Stamp is wonderful as innocent Billy Budd. The material is handled nimbly with great thought and care, while the supporting characters are mostly rich and complicated. Fine cinematography by Robert Krasker, and terrific grown-up entertainment all around. *** from ****
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10/10
Justice and law, good and evil, and duty and ethics are debated on high seas.
hakobell4 January 2006
Not only an excellent study of good and evil, this film also explores the conflict of duty vs personal ethics. When the officers are pondering Billy's fate, Wyatt pleads passionately for him. He is told that they are talking about law not justice and he asks pointedly , "Was not the one designed to serve the other?" Of course this opens up for the viewer a question of the real purpose of law. Excellent performances all around. Of course everyone talks about Stamp, Ustinov, and Ryan, but we also see excellent performances by Melvyn Douglas and David McCallum.

This film deserves to be released on DVD. It is a classic. I have shown it to my students in Honors American Literature after we read the novella, and it is always well received. The screenplay by Ustinov improves on the book by including the debate among the officers at Billy's trial.
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Riveting Performances
Bill-43415 May 2003
One of the best dramas of the sixties. The acting in this movie is superb. With an all star cast of Robert Ryan, Peter Ustinov, Melvyn Douglas and Terrance Stamp you can't go wrong. Filmed in glorious black and white. Ustinov at his best as the perplexed Captain and my favorite Robert Ryan as the sadistic Master of Arms. Billy Budd is a high seas adventure which won't disappoint.
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an almost Biblical like morality play
dtucker8623 December 2003
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.
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7/10
No mutiny on the Box office Bounty for AA
ptb-813 October 2005
Just imagine this scenario: It is 1962: MGM are in financial treacle with cost over runs on MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY which will end up costing $15 million US dollars (the same as BEN HUR). Allied Artisis, the once laughed at mini major which has shrewdly made drive in movies and art-house/mainstream blockbusters since the late forties (after changing their name from the guffawed-at Monogram Pictures) rents an existing Man-o-war sailing ship and through Peter Ustinov's astute guidance spends $1 million and creates an enduring seagoing masterpiece that outlives the next two remakes of BOUNTY....and was far more profitable than both put together! AA basically did the same thing again with their production of CABARET in the 70s when nobody would back Bob Fosse after Sweet Charity, and PAPILLON when Hollywood majors could not see the value in a French prison movie: AA did and both films brought in over $22 million each in rentals in the US alone allowing AA to see their greatest ever run of success. It's a pity that when the studio changed production chief in 1976 that they made that Edsel of movies THE BETSY ....instead of STAR WARS....eeek. In Sydney Australia BILLY BUDD was released at the Prince Edward theater a 1500 seat blue velvet palace built in 1924. It was the home of Paramount (who released AA here), so BILLY BUDD sailed straight into one of the most treasured cinemas in town. The PE had a resident theater organist, the hilarious and divine Noreen Hennessy, who was not unlike your great auntie dressed in the full chiffon meringue outfit each session and would nod to the crowd and announce "my song for you tonight is..." and proceed to bibbity bobbity boo on the great theater organ. Well, at the gala charity premiere, Noreen, having arrived to her position in the organ alcove in the last ten minutes of BILLY BUDD and proceeding to witness the tragic demise of said protagonist, she apparently decided to cheer the house up by loudly and merrily belting out "Anchors Aweigh" as Billy's feet swung about on the top of the screen. The sobbing audience, startled and alarmed by the change in tempo howled with laughter and gave a delighted Noreen a standing ovation that ran longer than her performance. Aaah..movie-going in the 60s!
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10/10
One of the screen's great classics
wuxmup15 June 2006
It took me a long time--decades, in fact--to warm to Herman Melville's story "Billy Budd," written in 1891. The writing is dense, the pacing unsatisfactory, the characters more symbols than human beings.

But the movie brilliantly overcomes all these difficulties. The casting is perfect. The then-unknown Terence Stamp seems to have been born for his role as Billy Budd. Nobody could play psychopathic villains like Robert Ryan, a vastly under-appreciated actor, and his portrayal of the villainous master-at-arms, Claggart, may be his finest performance. Melvyn Douglas, in his final role, gives great support as Billy's mentor. Peter Ustinov, whom one might think too soft and distractable to be a British naval captain, turns out to be the ideal embodiment of Captain Vere, whose real attitude toward Billy's "crime" is one of the great enigmas of the story.

You don't need to know a thing about Melville to be thoroughly absorbed by this film. It raises basic questions about the conflict between morality and legality, and the resolution of the problem here, like the process itself, will stick with you for a very long time.
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10/10
One of the greatest films
rrenon15 September 2002
After a hiatus of many years, "Billy Budd" has been re-released. When I saw it for the first time, when it first came out, I was stunned by the brilliance of the film. Arguably, "Billy Budd" is Herman Melville's greatest work, even better than "Moby Dick." Peter Ustinov wrote the screenplay for "Billy Budd" as well as produced, directed and starred in the film. "Starred" is, perhaps, the wrong word. The cast is like a wonderfully put-together ensemble cast. There is not a weak link in the cast. Robert Ryan, who in real life was a softie and a political liberal-radical, was wonderful as John Claggart, Master-at-Arms (the villain). Terrence Stamp, as Billy, was remarkable in his film debut. The direction was flawless, as was each and every acting job. Peter Ustinov's screenplay captures perfectly the text, the sense and the intent of Melville's writing. As is the book, the screenplay is sparse, direct, with everything necessary and nothing unnecessary. This has been, since I first saw it, on my list of 100 greatest films.
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Billy Budd is Moby Dick
denscul11 October 2000
This is a flawless film which follows Herman Melvill's original work faithfully. Melvill's most famous creation was Moby Dick. This lenthy work describes the Great Whale as a perfect and innocent creature. Budd shared those attributes with the Whale. Both must face others who have an unreasonable fear and hatred of what they represent. Budd's innocence, youth and likeable personality plays off Robert Ryan as the Master-at-Arms who was driven into an unreasonable frenzy which resembled Captain Ahab's mad revenge for Moby Dick. Ahab was the aggressor when he lost his leg to the Whale who was defending his life. Budd too, was defending himself from the pathological fear that Claggett displayed. Claggett's geatest jealousy was Budd's ability to form friendships. Budd's last words were to forgive the Captain, who sentenced him to death. The parallel to the bible's description of Christ forgiving those who crucified him would not have been lost on the generation that lived when Melville originally wrote Budd. There are no flaws in the movie's direction, acting or writing. This is a serious film, from begining to end.If there is one disappointment, the final frames show the appearance of the "enemy". The "enemy" remained on board the English Ship.
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10/10
Billy in the Darbies
theowinthrop26 September 2005
Herman Melville's greatest novel was MOBY DICK, but when it was published in 1851 it was a flop with the public. They expected sea stories like TYPEE, OMOO, REDBURN, or WHITE JACKET from Melville, but while MOBY DICK was about a whale ship pursuing a white whale, there were psychological and mystical symbols in the story that simply confused the public. Melville had done this before in a novel named MARDI (also a flop). He never regained his pre-1851 audience. Ironically this was the period when he wrote some of his greatest work: PIERRE, OR, THE AMBIGUITIES; THE CONFIDENCE MAN: HIS MASQUERADE; THE PIAZZA TALES. After THE CONFIDENCE MAN he did not write again for many years. He did turn out poetry (pretty good poems too) but then his next major work was a huge book length poem CLAREL, about modern pilgrims in the Holy Land. It too was not a success. All this time Melville supported himself and his family with a job as a customs house inspector. He was pretty obscure when he died in 1891. Few noted the literary figure of half a century before in the obituary columns.

Then, in 1924, in the midst of a serious reappraisal of Melville's work (which established him as one of the U.S. greatest writers), the story BILLY BUDD: FORETOPSMAN was finally published. Written in 1889 it was his last great work. It is really a novella, but it is as rich a piece as MOBY DICK.

The story takes place in 1797. Billy is on an American boat when it is stopped by a British frigate commanded by Captain Edward Vere. He is impressed onto the British ship (although it is not established, the British needing seamen claim he is an English seaman, and the American captain can't stop them). Billy is a totally good person, and the crew of Vere's frigate all come to like him, including Vere. The one exception is the Master of Arms, John Claggart. In charge of maintaining order on the boat, Claggart is suspicious of goodness. He finally confronts Billy, and in the confrontation Billy kills Claggart by a single blow. Billy is arrested, and Vere and his officers hold a court martial. Due to the recent 1797 Great Mutiny of the British fleet at the Nore and Spithead, Vere and his officers have the added pressure on them that they must have a symbolic sacrifice to maintain order on the boat. This is killing to Vere, who realizes that despite the physical blow Billy is truly innocent. Billy is found guilty and executed, shouting before he dies, "God Bless Captain Vere!"

The story is richer than this description can reveal, and I urge you to read it if you haven't. Ustinov, who directed this film (as well as appearing as Vere) never did a better job as a director - it was a straight tragedy, so none of his quirky humor gets involved here as in say ROMANOFF AND JULIET. All the characters (even Claggart - Robert Ryan in another fine performance) are sympathetic. At one point Claggart and Billy are alone on deck and for just a moment an emotional contact is made between the men - but Claggart realizes it as a sign of weakness and backs away from it (suspecting it was a trap from Billy). Terence Stamp too (in his film debut) plays Billy as innocent and Christlike - the sacrifice that can't be avoided to save his world (the frigate). And in the background is the issue of good and evil, how they constantly confront and twist each other out of shape so that nobody knows which is which in the end.

Although the 1797 Mutiny is the basis of the novella and film, Melville had another incident in mind that involved a cousin of his. In 1842 the American sloop of war, U.S.S. Somers, commanded by Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, was the scene of some incident that the Captain read as a possible mutiny. It was never really proved (despite several studies of the incident). But three men were hanged, including a midshipman named Philip Spencer (who was the son of President John Tyler's Secretary of War, John Canfield Spencer). Melville's cousin was an officer on the Somers, and frequently talked to Melville about the incident which blossomed into BILLY BUDD.
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9/10
Wonderful for classroom use!
hospitalship126 July 2005
This is one of my favourite movies. I also have shown it to 15 and 16 year old high school students to try to teach them about DUE PROCESS! An injustice to a young person perpetrated by older persons is something that I think many young persons can relate to. The script is great. I usually just show where Budd is being arraigned formally onwards in the Captain's cabin to the end of the movie. I think this is about 35 to 40 minutes (perhaps a little longer). The moral questions are still and will always be with us. A thinking AND feeling movie! SAMPLE QUESTIONS for due process: Does Budd have the right to know what evidence will be used against him? Does Budd have the right to cross-examine any witnesses or challenge any evidence that acts against him? Does Budd know what his rights are? Does the Captain have the right to intervene in the proceedings of the court and clearly use his authority as captain to sway the court's proceedings,findings or punishment? Is Budd given reasonable notice and information as to when and where the proceedings will take place? SAMPLE QUESTIONS on morality: Can military justice in war time truly be just? Why do lower (lowest) ranks always seem to get the worst of it in the military courts/legal system? Was Budd's punishment fair? What alternatives can you suggest if you were the captain for dealing with Budd? How does the "rule of law" conflict with basic compassion for one's fellow man in general? What would you have done to stop Budd's execution? For example would you have threatened to report the captain for UNLAWFUL or ABUSE of his authority? If so who might have supported you? Have you ever felt pressured by peers as the ship's officers clearly were by their captain (a fellow officer not just their commanding officer) to go along with something that you thought was clearly wrong? How did you feel afterwards about your ACTION or LACK of action?
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Just as good as the novel!
mbuchwal12 February 2005
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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7/10
Good and dramatic ships film with top-notch acting and masterfully directed
ma-cortes21 July 2004
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
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8/10
great film
KyleFurr21 September 2005
This movie was adapted by a novel from Herman Melville and directed by Peter Ustinov. It was unfortunate that this movie came out at the same time as Mutiny On The Bounty and as overshadowed by that movie. This is a much better movie and has a great cast with Peter Ustinov playing the captain, Melvyn Douglas playing an old sailor, Terence Stamp playing the title character and Robert Ryan playing John Claggart, the Master-at-arms. Robert Ryan easily steals the movie and when Ustinov was casting this picture he didn't know why Ryan would want this role when he was trying to stay away from roles like this. Ryan always played great villains and this was one of his best roles. Everyone in this movie was great and so is the film.
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An under-appreciated classic
robertguttman1 December 2001
Billy Budd is one of those under-appreciated films that demonstrate just how good movies can be when the producers don't succumb to the temptation to `Hollywoodize' a great work of literature. Peter Ustinov is to be commended for not adding any gratuitous love-interest to this film. In fact, there are no women in the movie at all, nor are is there any reason why there should be. Ustinov is also to be commended for not mitigating the tragic overtones of Mellville's story. Very few movies have been produced, apart from adaptations of Shakespeare, that can truely by characterized as tragedies. For Billy Budd is, indeed, a tragedy in the classical sense of the word. Billy is a classic tragic hero in that he is brought down by his single fatal flaw: an inability to articulate under emotional stress. By the same token, Captain Vere's tragedy lies in an equal inability to see beyond the need to uphold the letter of the law. All the cast do a superb job, but Terrance Stamp is particularly outstanding in the Christ-like title role. Ustinov himself also shines as the Pilate-like Captain Vere, and this movie may well be his finest performance. Robert Ryan also stands out as Master-at-Arms John Clagget, one of the most enigmatic villains in all literature. About the only criticism that has been directed at Billy Budd concerns the seeming incongruouity of the film's final scene. Without giving too much away, it should be pointed out that, after the mass-mutiny of the sailors in the British Navy in 1797 (the historical period in which Billy Budd takes place), those same British sailors turned around and achieved a resounding naval victory at the Battle of Camperdown. Bearing that in mind, the ending does not seem quite so unbelievable after all.
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