I haven’t read Herman Melville’s novella, “Billy Budd,” so I don’t know how true to Melville this adaptation is. I’ve since read that Melville hadn’t finished the novella before he died in 1891, and that it was first published in 1924 but was significantly altered in a new edition published in 1962, which was the same year this movie came out. The film is apparently based on a stage play that was based on the 1924 version of the story.
Well, I found the movie quite gripping. It’s basically a study of three characters and their interdependency: the naive Billy (Terence Stamp), the cruel Mr. Claggart (Robert Ryan), and the conflicted Captain Vere (director Peter Ustinov). It’s not quite true that each character is the focus of one each of the film’s three acts, but it’s true that Vere doesn’t really come into focus until the final act.
I’m pretty sure the DVD ended up in my Netflix queue because of an article I read about Robert Ryan, who is an actor I’ve come to really admire. His performance as Claggart is terrific. Ryan was particularly good at playing tormented men, but while Claggart does have a moment when Billy seems to reach tender or torn feelings inside him, for the most part he comes across as a brutal sadist who enjoys inflicting pain on others. I was reminded again and again of Dick Cheney, who apparently believes that security derives from being more terrible than your enemies. Claggart expresses this pretty directly in his most famous speech in the film, which is addressed to the gentle Billy, “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?”
Stamp has had a fascinating career, and I’d like to delve deeper into his filmography. What’s striking in this film is his sheer physical beauty at age 24. The interesting thing about the film is that while Billy and Claggart apparently embody Good and Evil, neither is a cartoon. Billy comes across as a bit of a simpleton, although that can be read as innocence or naivety as well, but while his character is largely passive and reactive, we also see in him an instinctive empathy for everyone around him, including Claggart. His empathy is his power, along with his beauty. These are the things that lead other men to love him, and even Claggart wrestles with that feeling for Billy. If there is any homoeroticism underlying all this, it’s understated, but Claggart does refer to Billy as the handsome sailor. Unlike Claggart and Vere, Billy never articulates any kind of philosophy, but instead he’s defined through his compassion for Claggart and Vere, who both wrong him in their different ways.
I knew about Billy and Claggart from reading about the Melville story over the years, but I didn’t know about the character of Captain Vere. As played by Ustinov, he’s a weak man who has been thrust into a dangerous situation (war with France), and he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s not in control of the situation. Thus he relies on Claggart to maintain discipline on the ship, despite knowing that Claggart is basically a psychopath. When Claggart lies about Billy’s intent to foment mutiny (shades of Cheney and the WMD in Iraq), Vere sees through the lie and sympathizes with Billy. The tricky part of this movie ends up being that after Billy accidentally kills Claggart, Vere argues that he must be hanged for the crime even though it’s justifiable as an act of self-defense. Vere’s insistence on the letter of the law against a sense of justice seems strained at times, but I think we’re meant to see again that he cannot take responsibility for anything and is always looking for someone or something else (e.g. the law) to make decisions for him. There’s also an implication that Vere’s self-loathing breeds resentment of Billy’s innocence and charm.
The ending felt a bit perfunctory to me, with Vere expressing traumatic regret and then suddenly being killed by a French cannonball. The attack of the French ship also prevents a mutiny in reprisal for the hanging of Billy, but it all happens so suddenly and then ends equally abruptly. Was this an attempt to leave an unfinished impression to match Melville’s unfinished story? I’m not going to say we’re left hanging, because that would be cheap, but I didn’t get any sense of resolution. Billy, Claggart, and Vere are all dead, but if this is a tragedy, where’s the catharsis?