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Peter Ustinov produced, directed, and co-starred in this adaptation of Herman Melville’s final (unpublished) novel, about the challenges of leadership in ethically murky waters.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.


One thought on “Billy Budd (1962)

  1. Rewatch. Must-see, as a sturdy classic.

    I’ll have to disagree with the assessment, particularly the observation that the bulk of the characters are not “fleshed out”. It seems to me that everyone on-board is delineated in fine detail. That’s the film’s main strength – since this is a story driven by its characters.

    Like ‘Moby Dick’, ‘BB’ is apparently a Christianity-based story of good and evil. One interpretation of ‘MD’ has it that the whale represents God and that the tortured human that is Ahab is forever angry at the ‘elusive, intimidating, higher spirit’. In ‘BB’, Claggart (another very tortured human) steps in for Ahab – and here the outrage is not toward a more complete concept of God but the specific aspect of Christ, represented in essence by Budd (Stamp).

    But… even if you put that symbolism aside, it’s still fascinating and relatable as drama – and it’s served up well thanks to Ustinov’s clear-eyed direction (not to mention his own performance) and the entire (talented) cast. One scene that stands out to me as stunning is the two-hander between Ryan and Stamp, having a ‘heart-to-heart’ at night. It’s brilliantly done by both, esp. Stamp (who impresses me quite a bit here, personally). I also appreciate Douglas’ contribution, in a different kind of role for the actor.

    The screenplay has an interesting element to it. Aside from being co-written by Ustinov and an uncredited Robert Rossen, the co-writer of special note is DeWitt Bodeen – who was responsible for writing (or co-writing) ‘Cat People’, ‘The Seventh Victim’, ‘The Curse of the Cat People’, ‘The Enchanted Cottage’ and the adaptation for ‘I Remember Mama’. A solid screenwriter.

    I’m rather blown away by this film, actually, and I think it increases in value on revisits. Although I’ve read ‘Moby Dick’, I’ve not read ‘Billy Budd’ – but I understand that this film is a rather faithful adaptation. Still… I think this revisit has convinced me to get around to a read of Melville’s story.

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