Cast & Crew
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.
Arthur S. Ferriman
A. Ronald Lubin
The Philharmonic Orchestra
Best Supporting Actor
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 His last novel, Billy Budd, Foretopman, unpublished until 1924, when it was discovered in the proverbial trunk 33 years after Melville's death, was dedicated to Jack Chase, captain of the foretop from an earlier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
Billy Budd - New on DVD - Terence Stamp plays BILLY BUDD in His Major Film Role
The story weaves a spell on many levels. A good, pure, young seaman named Billy Budd is working on a British merchant ship called "The Rights of Man" in 1797 when he is taken in mid-ocean to serve aboard an English warship, "The Avenger." Loved by his fellow crew for his decency and neverending positive nature, he finds himself in a conflict not of his own choosing with the ship's cruel master-at-arms, played by Robert Ryan in a fierce portrayal. It's Good vs. Evil and has been interpreted as an allegory with religious overtones. (As Niall MacGinnis, the captain of the merchant ship, says to Billy: "It's a fact that God goes with you.") Caught in the middle is the Avenger's Captain Vere, played by Ustinov, who can see what's going on but is compelled to follow proper military discipline at all times, right up to his final gut-wrenching decision regarding Billy Budd. Leading to that decision, however, is plenty of philosophical and moral agonizing, in which the audience is clearly asked to take part.
The increasing intensity of the conflict is perhaps more intellectual than visceral, and the movie leans a bit too much on the side of metaphor - a device which usually feels more satisfying in book form than in movie form. But the film is still a very good one, and one element that keeps it engaging on more emotional levels is the great use of location shooting off the coast of Spain. The sounds of wind on the sails and on the men really add to the feeling of being at sea, and the black-and-white CinemaScope, always a treat of a format, is put to good use here, allowing the film to stress the character conflicts through dramatic use of space.
Billy Budd has its share of unforgettable moments, some as simple as Billy looking wistfully at The Rights of Man sailing away on the horizon as a man on his new warship is flogged (for reasons that are kept vague from him and us). Robert Ryan is unforgettable in every scene he's in, and his non-verbal acting skills culminate in one of the all-time great movie deaths.
Stamp, too, does great work here. The New York Times review described him as having "the face of a Botticelli angel." Certainly that was appropriate for the part; Billy is at peace with himself in an almost otherworldy way, causing those around him to react in varying ways, positive and negative.
Also in the cast is Melvyn Douglas as a grizzled old shiphand. He hadn't done a feature film in 11 years and got the role purely by chance; he happened to be on vacation in Spain when Ustinov's first choice for the role, Wilfrid Lawson, proved wrong for the part after filming commenced.
In the commentary track, Stamp recalls the movie's production and goes off on many interesting tangents pertaining to his career. Ustinov, Stamp says, was a "great leader of men" and unappreciated as a director. Ustinov also had a superb cinematographer working for him in Robert Krasker, who had won an Oscar for The Third Man (1949) and also claimed Odd Man Out (1947), El Cid (1961) and later Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) to his credit. It was Krasker's idea to dye Stamp's hair blond, making Billy even more angelic-looking. Stamp recalls that Krasker shone so much light on him that at times he could barely keep his eyes open. He also relates that he was sharing a flat with Michael Caine at the time he was cast in the film, and that it was Caine who taught him the right accent to use - "west country boy," as Stamp puts it.
Overall, Soderbergh pretty much just lets Stamp talk. (The two worked together on The Limey, 2001.) Stamp's recollections are clear and detailed, and while he imparts a tone of detached arrogance at times, his performance in this movie is so good, and clearly meant so much to his career, that one can cut him some slack. His story of the Billy Budd premiere and its aftermath with his father is particularly well told, and he and Soderbergh are quite interesting on the acting process and how it's changed since the old, pre-Method days.
Billy Budd is available on its own or in Warner Home Video's Literary Classics Collection, which also includes The Prisoner of Zenda (both the 1937 and 1952 versions), The Three Musketeers (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), and Captain Horatio Hornblower (1950). None of the other discs have audio commentaries, but extras abound in the form of cartoons, short subjects, radio adaptations and trailers. Based on a quick look at these other titles, all appear to boast excellent transfers, with The Three Musketeers in particular looking absolutely splendid.
For more information about Billy Budd, visit Warner Video. To order Billy Budd, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold
Billy Budd - New on DVD - Terence Stamp plays BILLY BUDD in His Major Film Role
Sir Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)
He was born Peter Alexander Ustinov on April 16, 1921 in London, England. His father was a press attache at the German embassy until 1935 - when disgusted by the Nazi regime - he took out British nationality. He attended Westminster School, an exclusive private school in central London until he was 16. He then enrolled for acting classes at the London Theater Studio, and by 1939, he made his London stage debut.
His jovial nature and strong gift for dialects made him a natural player for films, and it wasn't long after finding theatre work that Ustinov moved into motion pictures: a Dutch priest in Michael Powell's One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1941); an elderly Czech professor in Let the People Sing (1942); and a star pupil of a Nazi spy school in The Goose Steps Out (1942).
He served in the British Army for four years (1942-46), where he found his talents well utilized by the military, allowing him to join the director Sir Carol Reed on some propaganda films. He eventually earned his first screenwriting credit for The Way Ahead (1944). One of Sir Carol Reed's best films, The Way Ahead was a thrilling drama which starred David Niven as a civilian heading up a group of locals to resist an oncoming Nazi unit. It was enough of a hit to earn Ustinov his first film directorial assignment, School for Secrets (1946), a well paced drama about the discovery of radar starring Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Richard Attenborough.
After the war, Ustinov took on another writer-director project Vice Versa (1948), a whimsical fantasy-comedy starring Roger Livesey and Anthony Newley as a father and son who magically switch personalities. Although not a huge hit of its day, the sheer buoyancy of the surreal premise has earned the film a large cult following.
Ustinov made his Hollywood debut, and garnered his first Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as an indolent Nero in the Roman epic, Quo Vadis? (1951). After achieving some international popularity with that role, Ustinov gave some top-notch performances in quality films: the snappish Prinny in the Stewart Granger vehicle Beau Brummel (1954); holding his own against Humphrey Bogart as an escaped convict in We're No Angels (1954); the ring master who presides over the life of the lead character in Max Ophuls's resplendent Lola Montez (1955); and a garrulous settler coping with the Australian outback in The Sundowners (1960).
The '60s would be Ustinov's most fruitful decade. He started off gabbing his first Oscar® as the cunning slave dealer in Spartacus (1960); made a smooth screen adaptation by directing his smash play, Romanoff and Juliet (1961), earned critical acclaim for his co-adaptation, direction, production and performance in Herman Melville's nautical classic Billy Budd (1962); and earned a second Oscar® as the fumbling jewel thief in the crime comedy Topkapi (1964).
He scored another Oscar® nomination in the Best Original Screenplay category for his airy, clever crime romp Hot Millions (1968), in which he played a con artist who uses a computer to bilk a company out of millions of dollars; but after that, Ustinov began taking a string of offbeat character parts: the lead in one of Disney's better kiddie flicks Blackbeard's Ghost (1968); a Mexican General who wants to reclaim Texas for Mexico in Viva Max! (1969); an old man who survives the ravaged planet of the future in Logan's Run (1976); and an unfortunate turn as a Chinese stereotype in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981). Still, he did achieve renewed popularity when he took on the role of Hercule Poirot in the star laced, Agatha Christie extravaganza Death on the Nile (1978). He was such a hit, that he would adroitly play the Belgian detective in two more theatrical movies: Evil Under the Sun (1982) and Appointment With Death (1988); as well as three television movies: Thirteen at Dinner (1985), Murder in Three Acts, Dead Man's Folly (both 1986).
Beyond his work in films, Ustinov was justifiably praised for his humanitarian work - most notably as the unpaid, goodwill ambassador for United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Since 1968, he had traveled to all corners of the globe: China, Russia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Kenya, Egypt, Thailand and numerous other countries to promote and host many benefit concerts for the agency.
Ustinov, who in 1990 earned a knighthood for his artistic and humanitarian contributions, is survived by his wife of 32 years, Hélène du Lau d'Allemans; three daughters, Tamara, Pavla, Andrea; and a son, Igor.
by Michael T. Toole
Sir Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)
Farewell to the Rights of Man!- Billy Budd
Wyatt, we do not deal with justice here, but with the law.- Lieutenant Seymour
Was not the one conceived to serve the other?- Lieutenant Wyatt
It's wrong to flog a man. It's against his being a man.- Billy Budd
The sea is calm you said. Peaceful. Calm above, but below a world of gliding monsters preying on their fellows. Murderers, all of them. Only the strongest teeth survive. And who's to tell me it's any different here on board, or yonder on dry land?"- Master At Arms Claggert
Aye sir, that is your right.- Lieutenant Seymour
It's no right. Which one of us here have rights? It's my duty and I must perform it.- Captain Vere
Location scenes filmed in Spain. Opened in London in September 1962. Rossen is not officially credited for writing the screenplay.
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1962 Nnational Board of Review.
Released in United States Fall November 1, 1962
Released in United States Fall November 1, 1962