BILLY BUDD: Blu-ray (Allied Artists, 1962) Warner Archive
“Taking a book off the brain is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole business in order to get at it with safety.”
– Herman Melville
Herman Melville was not exactly what you might call an expedient writer. Indeed, the aforementioned comment, made during his arduous crafting of Moby Dick, led Melville to a nearly 3-decade hiatus from authorship, concentrating instead on poetry. Yet, this quote could just as easily have applied to his 5-year gestation on Billy Budd; Melville’s farewell to the literary world. Billy Budd lay dormant and incomplete after Melville’s death, and then, until 1919, published in 1924 only after Columbia scholar, Raymond Weaver, posthumously unearthed the author’s notations, left to molder with the past since 1891. Melville’s widow was ambiguous about this version of her husband’s critically acclaimed masterwork; the odyssey to decipher badly muddled transcriptions, leading to more reinterpretation and misdirection until Northwestern’s Harrison Hayford and Merton Sealts’ re-publication of the ‘corrected’ text in 1962, as prepared by G. Thomas Tanselle.
Yet, even in its now widely regarded bastardized form, Billy Budd was hailed by the critics, transposed into a morality play on Broadway and also, of all things, an opera – debuting together in 1951. Interestingly, 1962 marked the release of Billy Budd – the movie; a superbly mounted passion project, directed, produced and co-written by Peter Ustinov and handsomely photographed in B&W Cinemascope by Robert Krasker. Released by Allied Artists, the picture is a noteworthy personal triumph for Ustinov, also denoting the first appearance of 24-yr.-old Terence Stamp as the titular hero. Stamp’s unusually piercing good looks, coupled with a striking presence, earned him a Best Supporting Oscar nod, as well as immediate international notoriety. Still, Ustinov was taking no chances, casting himself as Post Capt. Edwin Fairfax Vere, teetering between his devotion to Budd – as the true innocent of the piece – and his duties to the crown and rule of law. In the pivotal role of the envious and unscrupulously black-hearted Master d’arms, John Claggart, Ustinov went with the cinema’s favorite bastard du jour, Robert Ryan, whose performance is so viciously on point, it makes Budd’s striking Claggart, and inadvertently killing him with this single-punch assault, all the more a cause célèbre to effectively divide both the crew of the Avenger and the audiences’ empathy for the besieged Budd.
Billy Budd is a tale about the ancient crust of prejudice snuffing out a young man, pure of heart and forthright who, through an act of contrition for his hasty actions, comes to exemplify the martyred Christ-like figure. Budd’s selfless display of good sense absolves virtually all the moral turpitude gone before him. And Stamp, whose moody eyes, half drawn in a constant quest to understand and illustrate compassion for his fellow man – however morally bankrupt, typifies Melville’s dangerously liberated, gravely high-minded and indominable figure of faith; Budd’s strength drawn not from the swarthy cynicism of male brawn run amuck, rather, a restrained and silent concern, disseminated to the crew of the Avenger, badly in need of it. For this memorable enactment, Stamp, in addition to his Oscar nod, also earned the Golden Globe for Most Promising Male Newcomer, while Ustinov and the movie were nominated for 4 BAFTAs. Ustinov’s devotion to Melville pretty much follows the trajectory of author’s book – with noted exceptions; Ustinov, seeing no good reason to deviate from or ‘improve upon’ literary greatness.
So, it’s 1797: the HMS Avenger, pressing into service, according to the Rights of War, a crewmember from the merchant ship, The Rights of Man. The new arrival is Billy Budd (Terence Stamp), whose uncanny gentleness is misperceived by the Avenger’s shipmates for gullibility. Indeed, only The Dansker (Melvyn Douglas) seems to be considerate toward the boy. The others, particularly, maintopman, Enoch Jenkins (Ronald Lewis), gunnery office, Steven Wyatt (David McCallum) and Claggart’s assistant, Squeak (Lee Montague) are intent on luring Budd into their web of rank cynicism. They will not succeed. For Budd’s unwavering hopefulness steadily reveals an impenetrable confidence that cannot be tainted. Despite the daily rigors of life aboard ship, general unfriendliness of the crew, and, Claggart’s constant endeavor to humiliate the new inductee, Budd chooses never to be defeated and soon, much to Claggart’s chagrin, this wins him many silent admirers. Claggart firmly believes loyalty is won by ruling with fear of reprisals. The understanding heart and inherent respect for one’s fellow man has no place on his watch.
Budd’s only shortcoming is a stammer, exacerbated when he becomes anxious. Unable to fault the man who never frowns on them, the Avenger’s crewmen set aside any prejudices they might have had to favor Budd’s loyalty and discipline. Still, Claggart believes he can break the new recruit’s quiet resolve through abject humiliation. Budd repeatedly endeavors to befriend the master d’arms, but to no avail. In fact, Budd’s unflinching tolerance of Claggart’s contempt for him – reciprocated even with more kindness – only serves to have the opposite effect. Claggart’s spite for Budd exponentially mounts. More than ever, he is determined to make an example of Budd, even if he has to fabricate a situation to justify lashing out and plying his cruelties. Claggart’s belief in physical punishment to will loyalty is quietly resisted by Budd. While Claggart repeatedly savages the other men to cripple their self-worth, Budd elevates the importance of self-preservation by example. At a stalemate in his revenge, Claggart orders Squeak to concoct an incident he can use to put Budd on report. Eventually, this wily pair conspire to implicate Budd in a phony mutiny.
Proudly asserting his authority, Claggart brings the charges to Captain Vere’s attention. Vere, however, is not so easily fooled. Indeed, the Captain recognizes Claggart as a shameless brute, and, barring definitive proof (of which Verve is certain none exists) he absolutely refuses to entertain the Master d’arm’s inference Budd is a despicable mutineer. Although Claggart cannot implicate Budd directly, he nevertheless pursues a campaign to manufacture the necessary proof. Claggart cannot abide Budd, who stands in relief from his own cold heart for his unwavering regard for human frailty; a quality Claggart not only despises, but ostensibly possesses no firsthand knowledge. Budd is therefore an anathema to his wickedness and must be made an example. But how? Budd’s reputation is sterling. Furthermore, he has already proven that his buoyant self-confidence, although greatly tested, cannot be broken. To settle their differences once and for all, Vere elects to hold a private meeting with Claggart and Budd. Inadvertently, this will become the catalyst for Budd’s undoing. Although Vere does not believe for a moment Claggart’s implication Budd is a mutinous conspirator, he is nevertheless eager to hear Budd’s defense. Alas, shaken by such unbridled wickedness that could accuse him of treason, Budd’s stammer gets the better of him. Unable to speak, he lashes out with a single, solid punch, sending Claggart backwards. It is a lethal blow, as the Master d’arms strikes his head on the nearby block and tackle, dying instantly.
As a point of law, Vere must now convene a court-martial. The Captain and his officers are acutely aware of Budd’s humility and Claggart’s malevolence towards all. But Vere is bound by the rule of law. Budd ought to be found guilty simply for striking Claggart – his superior – let alone, for killing him. Hence, as the testimonials given begin to favor Budd, Vere is forced to intervene against Budd and find him guilty - a very bitter pill for Vere to swallow. His heart would have preferred to side with those leaning toward Budd’s exoneration. Instead, he is condemned to hang from the ship’s yardarm at dawn. Undaunted, Budd bravely concedes this is the correct decision and utters his final words, “God bless Captain Vere.” Budd’s forgiveness overwhelms Vere. As he is hanged from the ships rigging, the crew, appalled by the loss, teeter on the verge of mutiny, with Vere conflicted by his deed. Before any more contemplation can occur, a French vessel appears on the horizon and fires on the Avenger. Vere retaliates. But a heavy crossbeam is loosened by the resultant canon fire, plummeting to the Avenger’s deck and killing the Captain instantly. The Avenger’s figurehead is also blown to bits as a voice-over narration heralds Budd’s sacrifice as truly heroic.
The tragedy in Billy Budd is resplendently sobering; innocence, denied its better angels by the best of intentions put forth in an insincere world, bound by legality. Any law that would allow a manifestly iniquitous individual the authority – if not the right – to have a solid citizen destroyed over a moment’s indiscretion, is arguably a law not worth having…or, at least, so Melville’s novel and, more pointedly, Ustinov’s movie emphasizes. The victory of Billy Budd, the character, is more enduring; an exercise in devout kindness for its own sake, self-governance, and, the moral clarity of character itself, accepting personal responsibility for a situation Budd may not have begun or even directly inspired, but ultimately created during his moment’s lapse in judgement. The performances throughout Billy Budd are as thought-provoking and memorable; particularly, Terence Stamp’s subtly nuanced sacrificial lamb. Ustinov’s direction tends to favor Capt. Vere on an even counterpoint – as is the decision-making power afforded a movie star who steps both behind and in front of the camera. Even so, Ustinov’s formidable presence neither detracts nor strangely augments the picture in any significant way.
Ustinov is a very fine talent. That much is certain. And he adds yet another compelling characterization to his ever-expanding pantheon of character studies for Billy Budd. But it is not Ustinov’s story to tell, so to speak, and Vere’s loss at the end is played up a bit too dramatically, ever so slightly to impugn Melville’s focus. Nevertheless, as a movie, Billy Budd is superb entertainment, the lion’s share of the credit owed Stamp and Robert Ryan as sustained adversaries; the former, denying evil at every turn – except in the last; the latter, ultimately misjudging the untimely outcome of his brute temptations. Billy Budd is not a ‘flashy’ picture; nor are the performances in it show-boating for dramatic effect. The power and the glory of the piece is derived from its pursuit of goodness and truth, calculatingly inquired and answered for a world where neither goodness nor truth is a particularly valued commodity, except, perhaps after both have been lost.
Warner Archive brings Billy Budd to Blu in a stunning 1080p transfer, showing off Robert Krasker’s B&W cinematography to its very best. This is a pluperfect effort from a studio known to preserve cinema heritage for future generations to study and enjoy. How does one quantify perfection? Well, judging by WAC’s results herein, quite easily: solid, rich, velvety blacks, crisp/clean whites that never bloom, bang-on excellent contrast, a modicum of film grain, looking very indigenous to its source, and, what else is there to say? Oh, right. No age-related artifacts or edge enhancement either. The 2.0 mono is adequate and, in spots, subtly nuanced. Billy Budd looks and sounds as good as it ever did – possibly even better, after all the digital bells and whistles have been applied. You are going to love – LOVE – this disc. It’s that simple.
Terence Stamp and Steven Soderbergh offer up an audio commentary, ported over from the old DVD release. I have to say, it's not as engaging nor as comprehensive as I would have preferred, the two frequently veering off into sidebars that have little to do with the movie. We also get a theatrical trailer - ho-hum! Bottom line: Billy Budd is a powerful and illuminating story about human sacrifice, exquisitely remastered in hi-def. Own this one? By God – yes!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)