When a person is either drafted or volunteers for military service they must be willing to put their life on the line. But it goes deeper then that. A soldier, sailor, commando, military pilot, etc. essentially surrenders their entire lives to be part of a large operation, one that is governed by strict codes, rules and a caste system that must be obeyed by one and all. A soldiers life is not their own. They become, at least for the duration of their service, a slave.
In 1888, thirty-seven years after writing nautical masterpiece Moby Dick, Herman Melville began writing another maritime tale, this one about the complex apparatus of the Royal British Navy. Billy Budd told the story of a young merchant seaman pressed into service aboard a warship. He endears himself to everyone on the crew except for a sadistic master at arms who is determined to break him.
Melville passed away in 1891 and was thus unable to finish the novel. In 1919 a biographer named Raymond M. Weaver found the manuscript amongst Melville’s papers and the novella was published in 1924 to great acclaim. It went on to be adapted for the stage by playwright Louis O. Coxe on Broadway in 1951 where it received great acclaim and success. On the other side of the pond in that same year Benjamin Britton wrote his highly acclaimed operatic version. There was even, heaven help us, a rock musical called Billy that opened on Broadway in the late-sixties. It apparently wasn’t very good as it opened and closed on the same night.
Billy Budd again entered the spotlight in 1962. That year a new version of the novel was published. Co-edited by Melville scholar Merton M. Sealts, Jr. it is now considered the definitive edition and is the one most readily available to the public. It was also that year that Billy Budd made it to the big screen.
The man who brought Billy Budd to the cinema was Peter Ustinov. A true-blue Renaissance Man, Ustinov was already well known for his roles in such films as One of Our Aircraft is Missing and Spartacus, but he was also a prolific playwright, novelist, poet, set designer, humorist and newspaper columnist. By 1962 he had already written and directed a number of films, including School for Secrets, Private Angelo and Romanoff and Juliet. When asked by a reporter what drew him to the Melville novel (and the Coxe play in which much of the dialog for the film was taken) Ustinov explained “I am an optimist, unrepentant and militant. After all, in order not to be a fool an optimist must understand how sad a place the world can be. It is only the pessimist who find this out anew every day.”
While picking out the meaty role of Post Captain Edwin Fairfax Vere for himself, he combed Britain’s theater scene to cast his naval battalion. These actors included David McCallum, Paul Rogers and John Neville. Two key roles went to well-known Hollywood actors. One was Robert Ryan, then best known for such films as The Naked Spur and Bad Day at Black Rock, later for movies such as The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch. He was cast as the sadistic Master-at-Arms John Claggart. The other was Melvyn Douglas. Originally a suave leading man in such films as Ninotchka and Too Many Husbands, he was here cast as the elderly Scandinavian sail maker. Years later he would enjoy great late-career acclaim and an Oscar nomination for his role as an aging businessman/politician in Hal Ashby’s Being There.
The title role was the hardest to cast. The role required someone young enough to play a teenager, who could portray an innocent without becoming coy or coming across like a cipher. Supposedly every young actor in London read for the part. This included a young Michael Caine and his roommate Terrance Stamp, with whom he had co-starred on the London stage in The Long, the Short and the Tall.
Given he is best known today for playing the Kryptonian renegade Zod in Superman II and an aging transsexual in The Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Dessert, he might seem like an odd choice to play a young innocent. But at twenty-four Stamp was ideal. A king actor who was still a prince, he would perfectly embody the part of the “militant” optimist who doesn’t waver even when he learns just how cruel a place the world really is.
Billy Budd takes place upon the high seas in the year 1797. It’s a perilous time for the British military, the navy in particularly. The crown has lost the American colonies, and while the War for Independence was fought on land it was a tremendous blow to the image of Britain as a military superpower. Meanwhile, the French Revolution is taking place and tensions between these two longtime enemies are rising upon the Atlantic trade routes. Finally, the navy has seen a pair of mutinies that threaten the very foundation of military order. Aboard the warship HMS Avenger Capt. Vere (Ustinov) and his fellow commanding officers try to keep news of the insurrection a secret from their crew. But even in these pre-mass media days, word travels.
According to Britain’s Rights of War the navy can, during wartime, impress merchant seamen into service if necessary. One day the Avenger crosses paths with The Rights of Man, a merchant ship (named after a book by Thomas Paine). One member of the crew is selected to join the men on the Avenger, a young man named Billy Budd (Stamp).
Budd is not exactly a strapping young lad, but he clearly has made an impression on his fellow crewmates, looks healthy and (make of this what you will) is beautiful. Working on a merchant ship is quite different then being in the military warns the Captain of the Rights of Man. Budd learns this the moment he steps on board the Avenger as a sailor is flogged. When Budd inquires as to the man’s crime, the old sail maker says, “It was his time.”
In no time Budd endears himself to his shipmates. He happily jokes about being a bastard, shows good humor when the older soldiers rib him and despite being a bit on the scrawny side compared to the rest of the crew he wins a wrestling match with a fellow sailor. Budd doesn’t gloat but offers the sailor his hand. With that Budd is no longer a newbie but a peer.
But not everyone is won over. John Claggart (Robert Ryan) is the ships Master-at-Arms. He is responsible for, among other things, disciplining the sailors. Unfortunately, he is a dyed in the wool sadist, openly antagonizing the sailors by humiliating them, striking them with his cane and coming up with any excuse to flog them. He eggs them on by suggesting that one of them might stab them in the night, and then argues that none have the courage to do so. This is a man who thrives on chaos.
During a night watch he demands that a sailor who is violently ill stand his post on the ships mast. When the informed sailor is about to pass out, Budd leaves his post to try (in vain) to save him. Technically, he abandoned his post. For Claggart, this could be an excuse to subject Budd to the lash. But Capt. Vere is impressed. He decides to promote Billy despite the fact that he’s just been pressed into service. He’s warned by one of his Lieutenants that this could breed resentment from the crew. It does not. Billy has already earned the admiration of everyone on board.
Even, for a brief time, Claggart. One still, moonless night the two of them exchange a moment on the ships deck. Billy insists that he likes the Master-at-Arms and amuses him with his humor. Once he realizes that he’s let his guard down Claggart quickly becomes defensive and paranoid. He becomes convinced that Budd is conspiring against him. He hires his spy, nicknamed “Squeak” (Lee Montague) to find a reason to flog Billy. Instead Squeak warns Budd about his intentions. Billy refuses to believe that Claggart is out to get him. He’ll soon learn his lesson.
Fear of a mutiny is a pressing concern for the officers aboard the Avenger. At one point the crew is ordered to surrender their swords. At one point a crewman attempts to stab Claggart. Budd intervenes. Instead of showing his gratitude a confused and angry Claggared attempts to frame Billy for conspiring to lead a mutiny. The news is brought before Capt. Vere, who is immediately suspicious of the charges. Truth is, he too dislikes Claggart and doesn’t trust him. But he is a superior officer and his word carries more weight then Billy’s. When Claggart confronts the young man, Billy begins to stammer, unable to defend himself. Finally he does what any cornered animal would do. He lashes out and strikes a blow to Claggart.
Striking a superior officer is in itself an offensive would lead to a court-martial but Billy soon finds himself in deeper then he could ever imagine when Claggart falls backwards and hits his head. He looks up at Billy, smiles, then dies. It’s as if he realizes that during his last moment on earth he has put Billy into checkmate.
Taking control gently asks Billy to wait in a small holding pen then asks his lieutenants to enter his quarters for a court-martial. Everyone knows that Claggart is an antagonist and that he provoked Billy. The old sail maker later confirms that Claggart was trying to frame Billy. As far as the Lieutenants are concerned, it’s an open and shut case.
But not quite. Suddenly Vere is overcome by a sense of duty. Yes, Billy Budd was being framed, was provoked, and Claggarts death was an accident. But Budd did strike a superior officer. According to the rigid system of the military, the law must be obeyed to the letter, no exceptions. As much as it pains him, Vere must punish Billy to the full extent of military law, which is death by hanging.
There is, of course, a certain subtext to the scene. Yes, they could exonerate Billy and cover up the cause of Claggarts death, but they can’t hide the fact that Claggart is dead. Sooner or later, the truth could get out. If order is not maintained the sailors could revolt and it could be Vere who dies from a fatal blow.
This leads us to the harrowing climax. The crew is summoned on deck for what they assume will be another flogging. But the sail maker reminds them that floggings take place at noon. Hangings take place in the morning. To their shock and horror they see Billy being lead to the noose. In his last moments alive Billy stands defiant. He then cries out “God Bless Captain Vere!” The Christ-like implications are clear. Even as he’s being crucified Billy finds it in his heart to forgive his accuser.
Billy Budd has a damn near perfect cast. I say near perfect because of the casting of Robert Ryan. His performance as a cold, calculating, menacing Claggart is one for the ages but it’s not “perfect” because unlike the rest of the cast he doesn’t have a British accent. This isn’t meant as criticism. Truth is I barely gave it a thought when I first saw the movie. It was only later when my friend and fellow film buff Matthew Baker, who turned me onto the film, pointed out the fact that I really gave his accent (or lack there of) any thought at all.
Prior to the American Revolution it was quite common for Colonist to join the Royal Army and Navy and many loyalists fought for the crown. It’s conceivable that Claggart was a loyalist who joined His Majesties Navy prior to 1776. At one point Vere discusses the fact that Claggart’s past is a mystery. Of course his American accent would thus be a topic of conversation. At the end of the day a great actor can make you believe anything and we have no trouble whatsoever believing that Ryan is paranoid, sadistic monster that he is (in real life Ryan, who was brought before the HUAC committee on charges of being a communist, was committed to the civil rights movement and later an activist against the Vietnam War).
One last thing I’d like to mention is the stunning black and white cinematography by Robert Krasker. Born in Egypt and raised in Australia, he worked with David Lean on Brief Encounter and won an Oscar for The Third Man. At that time Kodak had developed a remarkable sharp black and white film stock that produced a much crisper image than previous stocks (another film from this period set primarily at sea that took advantage of this new stock was Michelangelo Antonioni’s stunningly beautiful L’Avventura). In 1962 movies were frequently being made in both color and black and white. Budget played a roll in determining how to shoot the film, yes, but generally speaking it was an artistic decision. If you wish to see a Technicolor seafaring adventure I recommend another Melville adaptation, John Huston’s terribly underrated film version of Moby Dick (which I do plan to include on this blog). Color is glorious, no doubt about it, but black and white photography almost always allows you do see details that the naked eye can’t see. This is especially true of the human face. Billy Budd may be set at sea but the action takes place in the claustrophobic confines of the warship. It’s the faces of the crewmen that tell the real story.
We can be grateful that corporal punishment is no longer used as a means to discipline military personnel and someone found guilty in a court-martial will face jail time rather then death. But make no mistake about it; soldiers are still treated like slaves. Just recently we fought two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The later was orchestrated by our Svengali-like Vice President Dick Cheney who, in my opinion, is also a dyed-in-the-wool sadist. Many soldiers not only lost their lives and have endured horrible injuries but saw their pay docked and often didn’t have body armor while in battle. Soldiers have been notoriously neglected since returning from these two wars, not that this is a new phenomenon. More then half the homeless people in this country are veterans. I believe that the military itself is a necessary evil and it must function properly in order to keep our country safe. But the men and women who serve are not evil and there must be a way for them to do perform their duties without sacrificing their humanity.