[box cover]

Billy Budd (1962)

The Literary Classics Collection

Taken — or rather, stolen — from a merchant vessel, thanks to an ongoing war, Billy Budd (Terrence Stamp, in his cinematic debut) is immediately disruptive on his new Royal Navy ship. The crew are a bit baffled by his good looks, and one of the sailors starts a fight with him, but Budd's worst effect is on Master d'Arms John Claggart (Robert Ryan). Claggart is a stern and cruel disciplinarian who seems to take quasi-sexual pleasure from the lashings he gives the near-mutinous crew. Budd's angelic presence disturbs him and tempts him, but Claggart can't get Budd to do something worth punishing. Claggart thus conspires with Squeak (Lee Montague) to get Budd to do something untoward, and after Budd refuses to participate — and then saves Claggart's life — Claggart reports to Post Captain Edwin Farifax (director Peter Ustinov) that Budd was conspiring to kill him. When Budd is asked to give his side of the story, distraught over the pile of lies presented to him, he strikes Claggart with a blow that knocks him to the ground and kills him. Farifax is then placed in a position where he must try and sentence Budd to death for his act of unintentional sedition. Billy Budd (1962) adapted Herman Melville's final novel to the big screen, but Peter Ustinov's take doesn't necessarily conform to Melville's vision. Many English teachers have used the text to demonstrate symbolism, with Claggart as Satan, Budd as Jesus, and Farifax as Pontius Pilate. And — as with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ — Ustinov reveals a certain sympathy for Pilate and his struggle. Such makes his character much more interesting than the standard bureaucrat who would simply wash his hands of the affair, but it confuses the final third's point of the sinless dying for our transgressions. That noted, it's a mild flaw in an otherwise worthwhile film, which features many great facets. First and foremost would be Robert Ryan's performance as Claggart. His character, similar to the one in On Dangerous Ground, reveals someone whose sadism is born of self-disgust, and he gets one of the greatest death screens in cinema — his face registers numerous emotions subtly presented as he lies dying. The film also introduced Terrence Stamp to the big screen, and he is marvelous as the naïf. But the gold star goes to cinematographer Robert Krasker (who was also the DP on The Third Man), who shot the black-and-white film on a boat on open sea in gorgeous anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), which is well served by Warner's DVD, which also offers the original monaural audio (DD 1.0). But what makes this Warner Brothers DVD well worth owning is the audio commentary by Stamp and his Limey director Steven Soderbergh, which not only covers this film, but much of Stamp's career — with special interest in his work with William Wyler and Federico Fellini. Theatrical trailer; keep-case, or slimcase in Warner's "Literary Classics Collection."

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