Billy Budd (1962)

Billy Budd (1962), produced and directed by Peter Ustinov.

Young Billy is a good-hearted and simple-minded merchant seaman. He is illiterate and doesn't know how old he is or where he was born, but is well-liked on the friendly ship Rights of Man. Things change when he is impressed aboard the warship Avenger, an entirely different environment.

With acute irony, the first words we hear from Billy are when he sings a halyard shanty, "Hanging Johnny".

1797 is during the war against Napoleon and revolutionary France; mutiny is in the fleet and discipline on the warship is kept by the brutal Master of Arms Claggart. The men hate him and the officers dislike and mistrust him, but he does a necessary job.

Claggart is an impenetrable mystery: the cruel man who cannot be reached or softened, who hates Billy for his goodness. He persecutes him until...


Accused of treason, Billy lashes out and kills Claggart. I think it is one of the great moments in film: Robert Ryan's shocked expression at being struck, then his smile of satisfaction as he realizes Billy will hang, then the fading as his glance shifts sideways into death.

The officers want to excuse Billy but the captain, who also likes the young man, talks them around. By the rules, Billy must die. Officers are not allowed their own standards of compassion or decency; their oaths and uniforms override that.

Billy is martyred for the good of the Royal Navy. In the book the sailors keep track of the beam from which he died as it moves from ship to ship, yard to yard. They carve little slivers from it as holy relics.

Adapted from a play, itself from Herman Melville's novel, this is in some ways dialogue-heavy treatment, but the conversation is good. The issues grab us and we don't mind hearing them talked out.

Many familiar faces:

Photographed by Robert Krasker (Brief Encounter (1945), Odd Man Out (1947), Senso (1954), The Third Man (1949)).

Available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. The commentary track has Steven Soderbergh interviewing Terence Stamp. Many great stories, although they don't seem to be watching the film closely.