Billy Budd (film)

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Billy Budd
Billy budd poster.jpg
Original film poster
Directed byPeter Ustinov
Produced byPeter Ustinov
Screenplay byPeter Ustinov
Robert Rossen
DeWitt Bodeen
Based onBilly Budd (novel by) Herman Melville
Louis O. Coxe (play)
Robert H. Chapman (play)
StarringTerence Stamp
Robert Ryan
Peter Ustinov
Melvyn Douglas
Music byAntony Hopkins
CinematographyRobert Krasker
Edited byJack Harris
Anglo Allied
Harvest Films
Nikhanj Films
Distributed byRank Film Distributors
Release date
  • 21 September 1962 (1962-09-21) (London)
Running time
123 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$25 million

Billy Budd is a 1962 British historical drama-adventure film produced, directed, and co-written by Peter Ustinov.[2] Adapted from Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman's stage play version of Herman Melville's short novel Billy Budd, it stars Terence Stamp as Billy Budd, Robert Ryan as John Claggart, and Ustinov as Captain Vere. In only his second film, 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.[3]


In the year 1797, the British naval vessel HMS Avenger presses into service a crewman "according to the Rights of War" from the merchant ship The Rights of Man. The new crewman, Billy Budd (Terence Stamp), 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 stew the crew must eat, he offers "It's hot. And there's a lot of it. I like everything about it except the flavor." The crew discovers Budd stammers in his speech when anxious.

Though Budd manages to enchant the crew, his attempts at befriending the brutal master-at-arms, John Claggart (Robert Ryan), 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.

Claggart orders Squeak (Lee Montague) to find means of putting Budd on report and to implicate him in a planned mutiny. He then brings his charges to the Captain, Edwin Fairfax Vere (Peter Ustinov). Although Claggart has no reason to implicate Budd in the conspiracy, Budd becomes a target because Billy 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, Budd stammers, unable to find the words to respond, and he strikes Claggart, who falls backward - against a block and tackle; Budd's unlawful act killed 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. Vere's soul is in turmoil over the decision he must make. 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 on the ship's rigging. 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 abjection, overtaken by his part in the death of innocence. Just as the crew is to be fired upon by the ship's marine detachment, a French vessel appears and commences cannon fire on the Avenger, and the crew eventually returns fire. In the course of battle a piece of the ship's rigging falls on Vere, killing him. The ship's figurehead is also shot off while a narrator tells of Budd's heroic sacrifice.



In addition to serving as director, Ustinov also produces and co-stars in the feature. His dedication to the film appears to emanate from his identification with the characters in the story. He said, "I am an optimist, unrepentant and militant. After all, in order not to be a fool an optimist must know how sad a place the world can be. It is only the pessimist who finds this out anew every day."[4]

On the novel itself, Melville had been writing poetry for 30 years when he returned to fiction with Billy Budd in late 1888. Still unfinished when he died in 1891, Melville's widow worked to help complete it, but it remained unpublished. Melville's biographer accidentally stumbled upon it when going through a trunk of the writer's papers in his granddaughter's New Jersey home in 1919, and it was finally published in 1924. Over the years other versions were published, but it was not until Melville's original notes were found that the definitive version was ultimately published in 1962. Coincidentally, this movie version, made in continental Europe and England, was released the same year.


Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic wrote Billy Budd was 'in almost every way a failure, and it is (Peter) Ustinov's fault.'.[5]

In its opening weekend in Leicester Square, London, it grossed a house record $12,000.[1]


  1. ^ a b "$12,000 Weekend Gross Of 'Billy Budd' in London". Variety. 26 September 1962. p. 5.
  2. ^ Tube. (29 August 1962). "Film reviews: Billy Budd". Variety. p. 6.
  3. ^ John C. Tibbetts, and James M. Welsh, eds. The Encyclopedia of Novels Into Film (2nd ed. 2005) pp 33–34.
  4. ^ Ustinov, Peter (2011). "9". Dear Me. London: Random House. ISBN 9780099421726.
  5. ^ Kaufmann, Stanley (1968). A world on Film. Delta Books. p. 117.

Further reading[edit]

  • Tibbetts, John C., and James M. Welsh, eds. The Encyclopedia of Novels Into Film (2nd ed. 2005) pp 33–34.

External links[edit]