Unlike most sea films, the enemy in Billy Budd is not to be found from without, but within. Specifically, it's the often harsh and arbitrary treatment of sailors imposed by the British Admiralty, which turned the term "military justice" into an oxymoron. In Billy Budd, so-called military justice spawns the cruelest injustice. Although Melville himself spent years at sea, and was no stranger to discipline under sail, his experience was with American merchant vessels. His last novel, Billy Budd, Foretopman, unpublished until 1924, when it was discovered in the proverbial trunk 33 years after Melville's death, was dedicated to Jack Chase, captain of the foretop from an earlier novel, White Jacket. Although the central incident of Billy Budd derived from the US Navy, he transplanted it to Britain at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which reframes the central conflict in higher relief.
Part of the strength of Melville's Moby Dick derives from its depth and density. Like that great novel, Billy Budd is an allegory of the ongoing struggle between good and evil, but in much simpler, almost too schematic terms, almost immediately set in motion in 1797 when the short-handed man-of-war, HMS Avenger, intercepts a British merchant vessel, The Rights of Man, in order to exercise its right to draw from its crew men needed to offset the shortfall in its own ranks. At a time when harsh treatment of those below decks was resulting in ever more widespread mutinies, and Admiralty reforms were being debated in Parliament, the grumblings of the merchant crew result in the raiding party removing only one of the civilians and pressing him into military service -- the cheerful, friendly, fatally guileless Budd. As the rowboat bearing him returns to the Avenger, he salutes his friends among the crew and the ship itself. "Goodbye, old 'Rights of Man,'" he cries -- all too prophetically.
The trouble with Billy, even allowing for the conventions of the allegory whose one extreme he embodies, is that he's too good to be true. He has no flaws being cheerful, honest, industrious, almost intrinsically unable to think ill of his fellow man, since he himself is never basely motivated. Ustinov's casting of the then virtually unknown Terence Stamp plays to Billy's innocence. Although the opening credits read "introducing Terence Stamp," Billy Budd was actually Stamp's second film appearance, having been preceded six months earlier by Term of Trial (1962), a Peter Glenville film starring Laurence Olivier as a weak schoolteacher and Simone Signoret as his devouring wife. Stamp played the school bully. With his choirboy's face and dyed golden locks, Stamp was beautiful in this, his breakthrough film, accentuating the angelic nature of Budd (a contemporary critic referred to him as Botticelli-like). Although Stamp received an Oscar® nomination, a Billy of more ordinary visage, possessed of a human flaw or two, might have added to the film's dramatic fiber. For all his striking beauty, Stamp is simply too representational a Billy to convince on a deeper level.
The inspired casting here is that of Robert Ryan, in the role of the sadistic Mr. Claggart, the ship's master at arms, the man responsible for crew discipline on a day-to-day basis. Evil is usually more fun to watch than good, and Ryan brings a compelling range of shadings to Claggart, about whom we know only that he chose to go to sea to get out from under a prison sentence for a crime unspecified, but obviously grave. What keeps Claggart going, what he uses to rationalize his cruelty, is his utterance that the world he experienced made him what he is. A night scene on deck, in which Claggart and Billy exchange world views before Claggart, threatened by what Billy represents, is the film's most powerful. Ryan's underplaying, perfectly in keeping with a man who has made his peace with the Dark Side, confident of his Satanic powers, is an ongoing strength, whether in his eyes shining with sadistic pleasure upon inflecting some petty cruelty or other, or preceding his merciless conversational thrusts at his superior, Ustinov's Captain Vere, with each insincere "With your permission, sir. . ."
Ryan's Claggart is a man who knows how to bide his time, and who plays for keeps, even if it means dying in order to destroy Billy. Knowing Billy's stammer will keep Billy from defending himself against his outrageous accusations, Claggart provokes Billy into violence. He may not quite have bargained for a blow to the temple that will prove fatal, but he dies with a final mad smile upon his lips because he knows that Billy has doomed himself by striking a superior in a time when the mutiny-fearing Navy is more jittery and trigger-happy than usual when it comes to breaches of discipline. This is where Ustinov's Captain Vere comes in.
Ustinov may not have done himself or the film a favor in casting himself as the latter-day Pontius Pilate squirming under his duty to decide the fate of this latter-day Christ figure. Billy, slightly uncomprehending, with no malice in his heart, is innocent by any measure except that of the martial law the ship's captain is pledged to administer. Until the court martial over which he must preside and serve as chief witness, Captain Vere has been a benevolent, distant, even soft personality with a diamond-hard intelligence, a man of vision with an eye to quality in the present moment and future consequences of his acts and decisions. Almost bridging the gap in station arising from his rank, he had until the fatal blow been a benevolent father figure toward Billy, not merely out of displaced paternal sentimentality, but because he sees Billy is good at his job and a unifying -- and not, as his accuser insists, divisive and mutinous -- influence on the crew. In fact, Ustinov's Vere seems a keenly intelligent man somewhat disabled by his own intelligence, able to see all sides, and thus seeming to waffle amid the absolutism around him. So it comes as something of a surprise to see him suddenly-- and uncharacteristically, in view of what we have seen of him -- turn hard-liner so emphatically.
Billy Budd is hardly the first film to be dramatically undermined by a high-minded agenda. But there's no escaping that it is, and the final voiceover -- as the dreaded French navy sneaks out from behind the other side of an island and fires away in full payback mode -- about Billy's death not having been in vain if it causes law to be hitched more to justice and less to the preservation of power in the ruling class, only pulls the film farther away from drama toward the shoals of didacticism.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that the film that launched Stamp also resurrected the career of Melvyn Douglas, the only other American in the cast besides Ryan. After long playing leading men to the likes of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Loretta Young and Merle Oberon, his career largely veered into TV after WWII. But he re-emerged and re-energized his film career as a strong presence here in the role of the ship's grizzled old sailmaker and resident Cassandra. A year later, he collected an Oscar® for Hud (1963). Like Douglas, Ustinov won two supporting actor Oscars®, for Spartacus (1960) and Topkapi (1964). (Douglas also won for Being There, 1979.) If there ever had been an Oscar® for most versatile all-rounder, Ustinov would have owned it. His noble failure, Billy Budd, would have been part of the reason.
Producer: Peter Ustinov
Director: Peter Ustinov
Screenplay: Peter Ustinov, Dewitt Bodeen; Louis O. Coxe, Robert H. Chapman (play "Billy Budd"); Herman Melville (novel "Billy Budd, Foretopman")
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Art Direction: Peter Murton
Music: Antony Hopkins
Film Editing: Jack Harris
Cast: Robert Ryan (John Claggart, Master d'Arms), Peter Ustinov (Edwin Fairfax Vere, Post Captain), Melvyn Douglas (The Dansker, sailmaker), Paul Rogers (Philip Seymour, 1st Lieutenant), John Neville (Julian Radcliffe - 2nd Lieutenant), David McCallum (Steven Wyatt, Gunnery Officer), Ronald Lewis (Enoch Jenkins, maintopman), Lee Montague (Squeak, Mr. Claggart's assistant), Thomas Heathcote (Alan Payne, maintopman), Ray McAnnally (William O'Daniel, maintopman), Robert Brown (Talbot), John Meillon (Neil Kincaid, maintopman), Cyril Luckham (Alfred Hallam - Captain of Marines), Niall McGinnis (Captain Nathaniel Graveling, Rights of Man), Victor Brooks (Amos Leonard, First Mate, Rights of Man), Barry Keegan (Charles Mathews, merchant seaman, Rights of Man), Terence Stamp (Billy Budd - Merchant seaman).
by Jay Carr
Ustinov in Focus, by Tony Thomas, A.S. Barnes, 1971
Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography, by Franklin Jarlett, McFarland, 1976
See You at the Movies: The Autobiography of Melvyn Douglas, by Melvyn Douglas and Tom Arthur, University Press of America, 1997
Magill's Survey of Cinema, Series I, Vol. 1, edited by Frank Northen Magill, Salem Press, 1980
A Mirror for England, Raymond Durgnat, Faber & Faber, 1971
Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1793-1815, by Brian Laverty, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1989