Saturday, January 21, 2012

Billy Budd

"Billy Budd". This is an adaptation of a novella  by Herman Melville and stars Peter Ustinov (who also directed) as Captain Vere, Robert Ryan as Master-at-Arms Claggert, and Terence Stamp as Billy Budd. This film is exceptional in comparison to others dealing with the era of the 'bounding main' in that it concentrates on the dynamics of the crew and not the enemy on the horizon. Only in the last five minutes is there a battle. 

The story is mainly about men thrown together to live in a small wooden world and the politics, jealousies, and friendships that develop as they sail about looking for the French naval forces who are in turn looking for them. Billy Budd is an ordinary seaman pressed from a merchant ship to help fill out the compliment on a Royal Navy frigate. This was a common practice in those days and it was one of the reasons we went to war with the British in 1812 because they were pressing American seamen for their ships. Billy is a likable bloke, easy to smile, a kind word to every one. He suffers from a stammering speech impediment on occasion but even this small handicap he treats light heartedly. His manner is in sharp contrast to the crew of the frigate, who are terrorized by Claggert, the ships Master-at-Arms. 

As played by Robert Ryan, Claggert is sadistic taskmaster who terrorizes the crew with strict discipline and frequent punishments. This rings true with how crews were treated at sea in those days. Very few sailors actually made it their life’s calling to ship out. Most seamen were there against their will or were escaping from the law. Such men, it was reasoned, had to be treated severely to keep them in line. A good "Bucko Mate", or in the case of the navy - Master-at-Arms, was worth his weight in gold. The plot revolves around the relationship of Billy and Claggert. The more Billy smiles and cheerfully does his work, the more Claggert despises him. To Billy, the Master-at-Arms is a mystery. In his short life he has never met a man so full of self-loathing that it manifests itself in sadism and fury. One night on watch, Billy engages Claggert in conversation and for a brief moment Claggert's façade falls and we glimpse a vulnerability that is normally kept tightly bundled away. Before too much is revealed, however, he becomes aware of the slip and hereafter hates Billy even more for exposing a weakness.

Billy is now in Claggerts cross-hairs. The Master-at Arms concocts a story of possible mutiny among the crew instigated by Billy. When the seaman is called to the Captain's cabin to answer to the charges, he is overcome with emotion when he hears Claggerts lies. In his inability to articulate a rebuttal due to his impediment, frustration and anger build to a velocity where he strikes Claggert with a mortal blow. Tellingly, just before Claggert dies his last expression is a smile, as if to be finally liberated of his demons.  It would seem a simple case of manslaughter due to the provocation and accidental death. A board consisting of the ship's officers is convened to either acquit or convict Billy Budd. The mood of the officers is to acquit, however, Captain Vere points out that the Royal Navy Articles of War are quite clear on the subject. Since England is at war with France, the Articles stipulate that a seaman who strikes an officer during wartime will be hung by the neck until dead. "Gentlemen we must side with the law, not justice." Billy meets his conviction with an unnatural calmness, stating that since the Captain and ship's officers are learned men then they arrived at their decision with wisdom borne of such learning. Billy is duly hung from the yard arm. His last words were "God bless Captain Vere". Just as his body gives its last breath, the French attack. Captain Vere, overcome with emotion turns his back in apathy to the attack. We as an audience are left to our own devices as to the fate of the ship since the film ends as the battle rages. 

This film was bracketed by two other films dealing with wooden ships and iron men. "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Damn the Defiant" were released before and after respectively of "Billy Budd." It came out the loser in profits. However, when viewed in comparison to the others in actors performances, It clearly is superior (Brando's eccentric and erratic Fletcher Christian in "Bounty" would mark his long slide into mediocrity). Robert Ryan clearly translates evil in his portrayal of Claggert. Peter Ustinov's gives a restrained performance as Captain Vere, until the execution where we watch the mask fall away as he curses himself for obeying Admiralty law instead of righteous justice. Terence Stamp is superb as Billy Budd. The juxtaposition of his angelic performance makes the contrast to Ryan's sadism that much more memorable. I don't know if this film has been converted to DVD, but if discovered, it's definitely worth a look.

1 comment:

  1. Just checked and it is available on Netflix:

    ...and is now in our queue! Thanks for the review!