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In 1797 a young merchant seaman, Billy Budd, is impressed into service by the British Navy for the war between England and France. His innate goodness blinds him to the evil in other men, and when he proves to be an excellent sailor, Billy soon becomes the most popular member of the crew. Only the sadistic and hated master-at-arms, Claggart, remains aloof; unable to comprehend the boy's simple and honest nature, Claggart attempts to bring about his downfall by falsely accusing him of instigating a mutiny. The ship's captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, knows that Claggart is lying and calls upon Billy to deny the charge, but the boy is so stunned by the accusation that an impediment in his speech renders him incapable of uttering a word; instead, he strikes Claggart, causing him to fall, fracture his skull, and die. At the shipboard court-martial, all the officers agree that the death was accidental and Billy should therefore be acquitted, but Vere points out that they must deal with naval law, not justice, and that Billy must pay the death penalty for killing a superior officer. The board is forced to make the agonizing decision that Billy be hanged, but as the rope is placed around his neck, he prevents a possible mutiny among the crew by crying out, "God bless Captain Vere." The latter is so emotionally moved by the words that he considers himself unfit for command, but the crew rallies when a French ship appears on the horizon. Vere dies in the ensuing engagement.