Billy Budd (1962)

Billy Budd (1962)

“There are many ways to lie, Mr. Claggert, but there is only one way to tell the truth.”

When a good-hearted young crewman named Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) begins work aboard a British naval vessel, he is soon targeted by a sadistic master-at-arms (Robert Ryan), and the ship’s captain (Peter Ustinov) faces the hardest decision of his career.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • Falsely Accused
  • Melvyn Douglas Films
  • Niall MacGinnis Films
  • Peter Ustinov Films
  • Robert Ryan Films
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • Terence Stamp Films

Peter Ustinov produced, directed, and co-starred in this adaptation of Herman Melville’s final (unpublished) novel, about the challenges of leadership in ethically murky waters. Unlike in Mutiny on the Bounty — the remake of which was released the same year as this film — the ultimate authority of the ship here remains steadfast; instead, it’s a subordinate leader who pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior. As in The Naked Spur (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and other titles, Ryan once again excels at playing a menacing baddie who makes life untenable for those unwilling to kowtow to his demands:

… and Stamp (in his breakthrough cinematic role) is an appropriately naive foil for his efforts. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough to the overall narrative arc to sustain the nearly two-hour storyline. Melvyn Douglas is on hand to provide wise counsel:

… but neither he nor the other supporting characters (including Ustinov himself) are sufficiently fleshed out to help us relate to their dilemmas. While this seems like a fine adaptation of Melville’s work, the story itself doesn’t quite rise to the ranks of its seafaring peers (including Melville’s own Moby Dick).

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Robert Ryan as John Claggart
  • Terence Stamp as Billy Budd

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.


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