Saturday, 16 April 2016

Billy Budd (1962)

"There are many ways to lie, Mr Claggart, but there is only one way to tell the truth"

Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) is a young merchant seaman who is requisitioned by a man of war ship. Billy is optimistic and kind to everyone, and with his simple ways he is able to win over the rest of the crew. All except Master at Arms, Claggart (Robert Ryan). Claggart is cruel and bitter, he enjoys torturing the men, all of whom live in fear of him. Billy attempts to win Claggart over, and almost succeeds, but alarmed by Billy's kindness Claggart becomes determined to punish him.

Peter Ustinov directed and starred in the film and it was Stamp's first major film role. He was nominated for an academy award for best supporting actor for his role as the titular character. The film is a battle between good and evil, with Claggart becoming more tormented as the film moves on. Stamp described Billy as 'an angel' and there is certainly an angelic, almost otherworldly, presence to him. Billy is truthful, cheerful and unfailingly kind. He doesn't really believe that people can be evil, and stammers when he becomes anxious, admitting he cannot always find the words to say what he wishes.

Claggart unfairly accuses Billy of mutiny, Billy is unable to form words in his defence.  Pushed beyond endurance, (and perhaps coming to the realisation that Claggart is evil), Billy strikes and accidentally kills him. The Captain (Ustinov) is torn between his duty to the law, and the knowledge that Billy was justified in his actions. The film raises moral questions-what constitutes good and evil? Can killing ever be justified? The Captain spends most of the film knowing that Claggart is no good and is despised by the men, however believing Claggart to be good at keeping law and order, the Captain does nothing to hinder Claggart's maliciousness. Billy is put on trial and is found not guilty by three members of the court, the fourth, the Captain, whilst wanting Billy to go free, believes he must hang because it is their duty to keep the law. Fore-tellingly at the beginning of the film Billy is taken from a ship called the 'Rights of Man'. As a viewer the officers dedication to the rules and laws of the army is frustrating, they kill Billy despite not wanting too, the 'rules' are more important than their humanity. Yet Billy's strange peace and lack of resentment towards them means that they will be forever haunted by what they have done. Billy may not live but his spirit leaves an undeniable mark on those who have known and wronged him.
Perhaps the irony is that Billy is too good for the world.

Ustinov searched all over for a young unknown who could play Billy Budd. Stamp thought he was not angelic enough to play Billy and upon his interview with Ustinov was so overcome he was unable to speak. Ustinov was delighted as he knew Stamp would be able to portray Billy's inability to speak in times of distress. The film also co-stars Melvyn Douglas and David McCallum. 


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