Dir. Peter Ustinov. Starring Terence Stamp, Peter Ustinov, Robert Ryan
There are women in Lawrence of Arabia, even if one hears little of them and sees even less. Billy Budd, released in the same year, is genuinely devoid of women. They are a foreign presence at sea, though “foreign” may be too weak a word; “alien” would be better. There is an awful lot of wrestling in Billy Budd, at first between Billy (Stamp) and Jenkins (Ronald Lewis), his immediate superior onboard. It is a rite of passage for the new man recently impressed off the weightily named Rights of Man, and he stands the conflict well. Later on, Billy stands between Kincaid (John Meillon), a sailor who has it in his head to murder the master-at-arms, Claggart (Ryan) for his role in Jenkins’ death. A shirtless fight breaks out between the two over Kincaid’s knife, one that’s only broken up when Claggart himself ends the scuffle. And it’s impossible to understate the tension between Billy and Claggart, one which is primarily friendly but never safe. Their most important scene together scene together takes place in the moonlight on the deck of a man-o’-war gently rocking in the waves, and while it seems as safe as any other bright night, the ocean is quietly threatening. Stamp’s Billy is guileless and simple as moonlight, and Stamp is as strong here as he is in his similarly mystical role in Teorema. But the movie desperately needs Robert Ryan’s rough-hewn image, his American accent in a universe of British voices, his coy conversation with Stamp, and the sea’s fickle temper. Without them, Billy Budd is a child; with them, he is a virgin.
Billy Budd is as homosocially oriented as Lawrence of Arabia, and where Lawrence settles for the title character’s inclination to throw his arm around Ali, Ustinov gives us a screen-filling shot of Ryan’s butt. That moonlit chat between Billy and Claggart is the picture of a sweetheart charming the socks off of a grizzled elder—sort of like what Sabrina does to Linus Larrabee—and it awakens something in Claggart. It’s affection, sympathy, even a little admiration thrown into the mix. We can see Claggart lighten up, and within twenty-four hours he has made three separate plots to destroy the man who awakened him, unable to cope with even this slight crack in his tough facade. Perhaps Melville’s original text makes Claggart more of a jaded sadist; undoubtedly Billy Budd the film recognizes the homosexual undertones of the story. It’s oddly placed in the historical record; it was released the year after the instantly inflammatory Victim, and Beau travail, which it has three decades and more on, is the more erotic interpretation of the tale. All the same, the scenes which feed any reading of repression in Claggart are the most interesting. That’s why his death throws the movie under the…boat, I guess. The movie requires Claggart’s blood to bring about the denouement, but after spending time with such an appealingly enigmatic antagonist, the conflict between law and justice lacks heat. Subtext collapses and philosophy ensues. I don’t mind the idea, but the execution is faulty here as the movie is frequently inaccurate.
Ustinov is a competent director who makes us feel the cramped quarters of the ship, the rocking of the waves, the frequently anxious faces of the characters. (I don’t know if this was his choice or if it was someone else’s idea, but I thought the credits were a brilliant stroke. As the ship sails on, names of actors appear on screen and the voice of the actor says the name of the character. It’s a big cast, and even if you don’t have to struggle to find Melvyn Douglas, it’s nice to be able to get some sense of who’s who before being tossed into the drama.) It’s the first that matters most, as it matters most in any naval drama, and Ustinov creatively finds multiple places to give us that claustrophobia. The belowdecks area where the sailors eat is jammed with people at small tables and crowded onto benches; this is probably the “real” reason Ryan’s butt is supersized in that one scene. The final scene which assembles all the men onto the deck at once, placed by their roles aboard the ship, gives a sense of how many folks have to scurry around like ants in their hill. Most impressive of all is a scene where Billy and Squeak (Lee Montague) have a conversation on the wrong side of hull, squeezing their bodies onto a plank of wood which barely seems to hang over the ocean.
Although I don’t like to overpraise a director for bringing out good performances in actors, it couldn’t have hurt that an actor as accomplished as Ustinov was there to guide the performances, which are quite good. Ironically, I think I would have liked someone to direct Ustinov’s performance a bit more. Captain Vere is as important as anyone else in the film, but Ustinov’s performance is a little too understated and dry. It’s not that the captain is feeble or flaccid, because in the end he proves his forcefulness is second only to Claggart’s in the grand scheme of the film. He is a beancounter and bureaucrat by nature, not a warrior or contender; call him the Ezra Klein of His Majesty’s Navy. The regulations are paramount for him, and in defense of these regulations we find the only partisan in Vere’s nature. Ustinov doesn’t hit the note truly on this point, and so what should be arguably the movie’s most powerful scene feels inevitable instead.
The tribunal for Billy’s trial is made of the three ranking officers below Vere, who is a witness to Billy’s crime and must recuse himself. Led by the first officer, Seymour (Paul Rogers), they quickly find Billy innocent after speaking to him, to Vere, and to Dansker (Douglas), who mysteriously implies that there was a darkness in Claggart that essentially brought on what was coming to him. The drumhead is surprisingly reasonable. One officer notes that Billy, who stammers when he is overwhelmed with emotion, responded with physical violence when Claggart accused of him of being the ringleader of a mutiny; if this is a handicap, he says, then one would hardly charge someone based on a disability. Another officer says that had he been insulted as egregiously as Billy, he too would have rung Claggart’s bell. But Vere, almost whispering with conspiratorial disappointment, recalls that the letter of the law requires that any impressed man who so much as strikes a superior officer during wartime must hang. It’s not long before he convinces the officers (I guess they’re the Vox staff in this metaphor) that they must convict Billy by the letter of the law, not save him, and so Billy will hang the next day for his crime. Rogers, John Neville, and David McCallum each do well as they cave to Ustinov’s argument, and Ustinov shoots the scene intelligently, putting Vere behind the tribunal to symbolize that he is the power behind this throne, the simultaneous angel and devil on their shoulders. But Ustinov doesn’t seem to understand what a menacing position Vere takes. In emphasizing the captain’s sympathy for Billy (Please tell us how to save him, he asks his final holdout) over the fundamental injustice in his position, the film missteps. The story, which was already about Billy and Claggart, has lost the more interesting character of the two. And in the half-cocked episode of Paths of Glory or Breaker Morant it’s made, it believes that the judges are more interesting than those they victimize for ten minutes too long.