BILLY BUDD, a briny saga of Royal Navy seafaring, was part of a small but stellar squadron in 1962 that included the undervalued remake of Mutiny On The Bounty and the overlooked Damn The Defiant! Twenty-three in his second film, Terence Stamp plays the title character, and launched his movie career by earning an Oscar nomination as Supporting Actor. He earned his laurels against some veteran heavy hitters in the cast—Peter Ustinov, Robert Ryan and Melvyn Douglas.
1797. The British warship ‘Avenger’ has a new crewman, cheerful ‘Billy Budd’ (Stamp), impressed (taken by force) from a merchant vessel. Billy’s naivete and disarming decency win over the firm but fair ‘Captain Vere’ (Ustinov), and the crew, including old salt ‘Dansker’ (Douglas). But he finds an implacable enemy in brutal Master at Arms ‘Claggart’ (Ryan), whose idea of discipline is an excuse for cruelty.
Ustinov directed, produced and co-wrote the adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel. Well-reviewed, the modestly budgeted ($1,400,000) picture, done in black & white (Robert Krasker manning the camera) was too cerebral and downbeat to register as a box-office hit, the $2,600,000 gross becalmed at 89th place for the year. It makes for a gripping yarn, though, holding until the rather lackluster and dispiriting finale.
Doing quadruple duty, Ustinov is fine as the judicious captain bound to unpleasant choice, and Douglas returns to the screen after an 11-year absence with a neat role as a world-weary Dutchman who’s seen too many boys like Billy and brutes like Claggart come and go. Those who know Stamp from his overall screen persona as a brooding threat of one sort or another will be pleased to see his open, hopeful and kindly portrait here, with Budd’s beatific innocence standing as didactic fulcrum against Ryan’s malevolence. Just as Claggart’s self-satisfied tyranny dominates the mood of the ship and its men, Ryan’s skill at exuding menace imbued with perception dominates the movie. The navy may have been Royal, but their decks were stacked in favor of men like Claggart. *
“The sea’s deceitful, boy: calm above, and underneath, a world of gliding monsters preying on their fellows. Murderers, all of them. Only the sharpest teeth survive.”
DeWitt Bodeen co-wrote with Ustinov: filming was done off the coast of Alicante, Spain. With solid backup in the rigging and on the quarterdeck from Paul Rogers, John Neville, David McCallum, Ronald Lewis, Lee Montague, Robert Brown, John Meillon and Niall MacGinnis. 123 minutes.
* Ship-shaping——–although Stamp officially debuted earlier in ’62, cast as a punk in Term Of Trial, it was his “introduction” as Billy Budd that launched him from being Michael Caine’s room-mate and pub-pal to being his friendly competitor for stardom. For Melvyn Douglas, 61, it marked a re-emergence after being off-screen, “graylisted” since 1951. Together with his Supporting Actor win the following year (for Hud ), he commenced two decades of superb performances, easily eclipsing his 1931-51 roster. On the revitalized end of things, the ship playing the ‘Avenger’ was actually the ‘Marcel B. Surdo’, an Italian cod-fishing craft rebuilt to serve as a Royal Navy frigate. It showed up that same year broadsiding in Damn The Defiant, and had already done duty in 1959 for John Paul Jones. The ship sank in Tampa in 1981.
Melville’s book was unfinished at the time of his death in 1891, filed away and forgotten. His wife helped publish a version 33 years later, but it was another 38 years before the definitive version would emerge, in 1962, in time for the movie made from it.