Billy Budd

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 10, 2014

This is a very handsome film, engaging, intelligent, affecting. (Not that I would even know, but) the shipboard details are convincing and authentic. There are just enough of these details to insure that Herman Melville’s allegory has application beyond the strictly abstract. Billy Budd famously and very profoundly contemplates the natures of Good and Evil. This adaptation, by its patient unfolding and the effective creation of a marine milieu, also gives a sense of life and lives.

Design and cinematography are exemplary. The direction is actually quite modest, or perhaps you could say mature. Text and performance are the point and focus here, so that the considerable craft on hand also, mostly stays in the background, subordinated to concept and communication. This is what makes director Peter Ustinov’s occasional cinematic elaborations especially powerful. He really picks his spots, which by their very scarceness really register.

Speaking of which, Ustinov, as the Captain, is very handsome here. That should give us pause. It takes all kinds, doesn’t it? Anyway, more on performance: Melvin Douglas’s sailmaker character is potentially just portentous.  Here is much of Melville’s previously mentioned abstraction, and here it is very plausibly applied. Billy Budd is one of those fascinating transitional films, in which one sees Old Hollywood giving way to new social and industrial instabilities, as well as new possibilities. Douglas, among others, gives notice of how very much the old guard still has to offer.

Robert Ryan!  In some ways his take on Melville’s villainous, Iago-like Claggart character is just another in a long string of his near or actual psychopath characters. But with this part, and this property, Ryan really is going to the very root of that plant. What could elsewhere be somewhat manneristic or even obligatory, here takes on something quite elemental. That smile, as he dies!

As Billy, (then) newcomer Terrence Stamp is magnetic, in a complicated way. He movingly communicates his character’s deep decency. This decency at first appears to be merely personal. But as it develops, as it is strategically, skillfully deepened it becomes a righteous reproof to characters, captains and viewers alike. Still, though, there’s a bit of Sam Peckinpah 1962 in this adaptation, and in Stamp’s contribution particularly. We’d not reaped the cinematic whirlwind yet, but by 1962 decades of representational repression were on the brink of giving way. Too little was about to become too much! There are traces of this in Ustinov’s adaptations, hints of, I don’t know, depravity to this particular beauty. That would be a 1960’s view, anyway, which looks forward to further developments in, say, Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) or Death in Venice (1971), or Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il Conformista (1970.)

Of course the depravities of 1962 might also be considered mere androgynous ambiguity, or even the much longed for shape of things to come. We’re at a crossroads here! No wonder Pier Paolo Pasolini wanted Stamp; strange to say, but this Billy Budd is quite a bit like Pasolini’s later, bounds-bursting, gender annihilating Theorem (1968).

Finally, back to Melville’s resonant allegory. That famous accusation, that apocalyptic blow are extraordinarily well staged. The literarily satisfying idea of that stammer seems, here, to foreshadow overly. This viewer doesn’t quite find the tribunal satisfying. Conversely, the sequence portraying the long night before Billy’s execution/martyrdom rises to real agony. The eventual execution is fearful, pitiable. Not Billy! Ustinov has fashioned a noble tragic adaptation out of Melville’s noble tragedy. The viewer is left not only knowing, but feeling, and deeply. Things go wrong in the world!