Sunday, January 1, 2012

Billy Budd (1962)

An Entertaining & Thought-provoking
High Seas Adventure

- In an age of mutinies within the Royal Navy, the HMS Bellipotent sails mightily during Britain and France's pre-Napoleon conflict. On this ship is a young man named Billy Budd (Terence Stamp), recently impressed into the Bellipotent's service from a ship called "Rights of Man," who is a great sailor and is loved by his fellow brothers at sea. Very innocent, lighthearted, charismatic and hardworking, Billy is just plain fun guy who has won friends from the lowest ranking deck scrubber to the highest-ranking naval officer - the whole ship loves him, really. Well almost the whole ship.... Except for Master at Arms John Claggart (Robert Ryan). Claggart is the anti-Billy; a cruel man, the crew feels nothing but hatred for him and the officers hold nothing but distrust for him. While Billy Budd feeds him respect and compassion, Claggart looks for ways to bring young Billy down, meanwhile the ship's Captain Vere (Peter Ustinov) finds himself trapped in the middle of it all. Directed by Peter Ustinov, Billy Budd is a fantastic film that is entertaining but also thought-provoking.

This film has a few Biblical and philosophical interpretations but I found it to be, mainly, an exploration of the law vs justice through a story of good vs evil. For the commanding officers of the Bellipotent, a French vessel is the least of their worries; what worries them the most is what lurks aboard their own ship. When Billy Budd is suspected of a crime, these officers not only have to separate their duties as officers from their feelings as men, they have to worry about what the other members of the crew will do upon the announcement of their verdict. Billy Budd is a very well written film - contemplative, dramatic and entertaining - and a well-made film all around from the photography to the acting.

Actor Robert Ryan does what he does best as the evil Master at Arms John Claggart, being menacing and brooding to entertaining and authentic levels. While we get some understanding of Claggart through the behind-the-back grumblings of the crew, Ryan brings many other facets to the character through his performance and makes him far more interesting than just a one-dimensional evil-doer. Peter Ustinov co-stars in this film as Captain Vere while he directs and is simply fantastic with his very powerful but very subtle performance. Vere is just and intelligent but he is very much a trapped man. Trapped between Claggart and the crew,  Vere is trapped between his duty of carrying out the consequences laid out by the law and his duty to protect his men. Hollywood legends Ryan and Ustinov are brilliant headlining leads but it is Terence Stamp who steals the show with his excellent portrayal of Billy Budd. The crew loves Billy and the entire film depends upon the audience feeling exactly as the Bellipotent's crew. Luckily, Stamp absolutely convinces in the role, making the audience feel the same way through his very believable and likable performance. These three performances drive and boost Billy Budd further into film greatness (and Bond fans, look out for M, Robert Brown, in a small role).



CBC Rating: 9/10

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