Billy Budd is a 1962 film produced, directed, and co-written by Peter Ustinov. Adapted from the stage play version of Herman Melville's short novel Billy Budd, it starred Terence Stamp as Billy Budd, Robert Ryan as John Claggart, and Ustinov as Captain Vere. Stamp was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and received a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer. The film was nominated for four BAFTAs.
In the year 1797, the British naval vessel HMS Avenger (changed from the book; in early drafts it was Indomitable, later ones, Bellipotent) impresses a crewman "according to the Rights of War" from the merchant ship The Rights Of Man. The new crewman, Billy Budd, is considered naive by his shipmates, and they attempt to indoctrinate him in their cynicism. But Budd's steadfast optimism is impenetrable, as when he is asked to critique the horrible gruel the crew must eat, he offers "It's hot. And there's a lot of it. I like everything about it except the flavor."
Though Budd manages to enchant the crew, his attempts at befriending the brutal master-at-arms, John Claggart, are unsuccessful. Claggart is cruel and unrepentant, a man who believes he must control the crew through vicious flogging; savaging them before they can prey on him. He reveals his mistrust for humanity when Budd confronts him about his discipline.
Budd: "It's wrong to flog a man. It's against his being a man."
Claggart: "The sea is calm you said. Peaceful. Calm above, but below a world of gliding monsters preying on their fellows. Murderers, all of them. Only the strongest teeth survive. And who's to tell me it's any different here on board, or yonder on dry land?"
When Claggart learns of a plot to end his life, he brings his charges to the Captain, Edwin Fairfax Vere. Although Claggart has no reason to implicate Budd in the conspiracy, Budd becomes a target because the crewman represents everything that Claggart despises: humility, innocence, and trust in humanity. Vere summons both Claggart and Budd to his cabin for a private confrontation. When Claggart makes his false charges that Budd is a conspirator, the accused is unable to find the words to respond and he strikes Claggart, killing him with a single blow.
Captain Vere assembles a court-martial. Vere and all the other officers on board are fully aware of Budd's simplicity and Claggart's evil, but the captain is also torn between his morality and duty to his station. Vere intervenes in the final stages of deliberations (which are in full support of Budd). He argues the defendant must be found guilty for even striking Claggart, Budd's superior, not to mention killing him. His arguments to pursue the letter of the law succeed, and Budd is convicted.
Condemned to be hanged from the ship's yardarm at dawn the following morning, Budd takes care to wear his good shoes. At Budd's final words, "God bless Captain Vere!", Vere crumbles, and Billy is subsequently hoisted up and hanged. At this point the crew is on the verge of mutiny over the incident, but Vere can only stare off into the distance, the picture of abdication, overtaken by his part in the death of innocence. Just as the crew is to be fired upon, a French vessel appears and commences cannon fire on the Avenger, and the crew eventually returns fire. HMS Avenger fends off the attack, but in the course of battle a piece of the ship's rigging falls on Vere, killing him in an act of poetic justice.
Terence Stamp as Billy Budd
Robert Ryan as John Claggart, Master d'Arms
Peter Ustinov as Edwin Fairfax Vere, Post Captain
Melvyn Douglas as The Dansker, sailmaker
Paul Rogers as Philip Seymour, 1st Lieutenant
John Neville as Julian Radcliffe, 2nd Lieutenant
David McCallum as Steven Wyatt, Gunnery Officer
Ronald Lewis as Enoch Jenkins, maintopman
Lee Montague as Squeak, Mr. Claggart's assistant
Thomas Heathcote as Alan Payne, maintopman
Ray McAnally as William O'Daniel, maintopman
Robert Brown as Talbot
John Meillon as Neil Kincaid, maintopman
Cyril Luckham as Hallam, Captain of Marines
Niall MacGinnis as Captain Nathaniel Graveling
Directed by Peter Ustinov
Produced by Peter Ustinov
Written by Peter Ustinov
Herman Melville (novel)
Music by Antony Hopkins
Cinematography Robert Krasker
Studio Anglo Allied
Distributed by Allied Artists
Release date(s) 1962
Running time 94 minutes
Country United Kingdom