Billy Budd (film)

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Billy Budd
Billy budd poster.jpg
Original film poster
Directed byPeter Ustinov
Screenplay by
Based onBilly Budd
by Herman Melville
Billy Budd
Produced byPeter Ustinov
CinematographyRobert Krasker
Edited byJack Harris
Music byAntony Hopkins
  • Anglo Allied
  • Harvest Films
  • Nikhanj Films
Distributed byRank Film Distributors
Release date
  • 21 September 1962 (1962-09-21) (London)[1]
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 his feature film debut, 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, is considered naive by his shipmates, and they attempt to indoctrinate him in their cynicism. But Budd's steadfast optimism remains; when 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, are unsuccessful. Claggart is cruel and unrepentant, a man who controls the crew through vicious flogging, savaging them before they can prey on him.

Claggart orders Squeak 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. 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 and fatally injures himself.

Captain Vere assembles a court-martial. Though aware of the background to Budd and Claggart's conflict, the captain is also torn between morality and duty to his station. Vere intervenes in the final stages of deliberations - which at that point are in support of Budd - to argues the defendant must be found guilty for even striking Claggart, not to mention killing him. His argument that the letter of the law matters is successful, 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 Budd is subsequently hoisted up and hanged on the ship's rigging. The crew is on the verge of mutiny over the incident, but Vere can only stare off into the distance. 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. The crew breaks off from the potential mutinty to return fire, and 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]

Awards and honours[edit]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor Terence Stamp Nominated [6]
British Academy Film Awards Best Film from any Source Nominated [7]
Best British Film Nominated
Best Foreign Actor Robert Ryan Nominated
Best British Screenplay Peter Ustinov and DeWitt Bodeen Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles Terence Stamp Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Peter Ustinov Nominated [8]
Golden Globe Awards Most Promising Newcomer – Male Terence Stamp Won [9]
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 2nd Place [10]
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Drama Peter Ustinov and DeWitt Bodeen Nominated [11]


  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.
  6. ^ "The 35th Academy Awards (1963) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 2 February 2018. Retrieved 23 August 2011.
  7. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1963". BAFTA. 1963. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  8. ^ "15th DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  9. ^ "Billy Budd – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  10. ^ "1962 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  11. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on 5 December 2012. Retrieved 6 June 2010.

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]