Tuesday, April 15, 2008


In 1797, during wartime, a young merchant sailor, Billy Budd (Terence Stamp), is taken off of his ship by the Royal Navy and impressed into service under Captain Vere (Peter Ustinov). Stamp is blond, handsome, and always smiling, though he does have a stammering problem. Soon he is a crew favorite (personality-wise; issues of lust or love or even close friendship are never touched upon), beloved by all except for the sadistic master-at-arms, Claggart (Robert Ryan), who actively enjoys the floggings he dishes out, sometimes, Stamp is told, for no reason at all. The men say that Ryan is an important "force for order," but they also believe that he finds "perfection" to be a disease. When Ryan refuses to let a sailor in obvious distress (Ronald Lewis) out of his turn up in the foretop, the sailor falls to his death and Stamp makes it clear that he blames Ryan for the man's death. In a well done night scene, Stamp tries to make friends with the master-at-arms, but Ryan believes that he is being artificially "charmed" by the lad and he goes to the captain with a blatantly false story implicating Stamp in an attempted mutiny. When confronted with Ryan's story, Stamp is struck dumb and the only way he can react is to punch Ryan in the head. Ryan falls, grins at Stamp, and dies. The officers on board vote to acquit Stamp, but Ustinov, though sympathetic to the boy's plight, feels they must let military law take its course, and the punishment for striking an officer, much less killing him, is death.

The Herman Melville story this is based on is a work, like Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," that always seemed to me to be full of homoerotic subtext waiting to be examined in English classes, but my teachers back in the 70's never went there. "Venice," they said, is about art, or aging, or death. "Billy," they said, is about good and evil, or the law, or Jesus Christ. Well, that may be, but I think both works can be also be fruitfully (no pun intended) examined as stories about thwarted male-male attraction. Ustinov, the director and co-screenwriter of this film, doesn't do much interpretation, settling for a realistic surface rendering of the narrative. If this version is about anything, it's about law vs. justice; even though the officers all believe that Stamp was telling the truth and that Ryan was a twisted bastard, they conclude, "We do not deal with justice but with the law," and the law says Stamp must die. Stamp is indeed lovely and angelic, and he received an Oscar nomination for this, his first movie role. Ustinov is excellent in a difficult role; Ryan has the dark glowering look for his part, and does a fine job in a chilling scene in which his body language makes it clear that he wants a flogging to continue at much greater length but cannot disobey his captain's orders. But he just never feels as evil or perverse as he should--and the hat he wears, a tall black one with a big brass buckle in the middle, kinda makes him look like an annoyed, if very tall, leprechaun. Melvyn Douglas, David McCallum, and John Neville (The Well Manicured Man on "X-Files") are also in the cast. Much of the film was shot aboard a real ship at sea which adds to the atmosphere, though this story really seems to call more for melodrama and symbolism than stark realism. [DVD]

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