SEPT / OCT 2013: BY PATTI GARDNER
Sometimes, no matter how hard you look for a glimmer of goodness in a person, you won’t find it. There are times when a man or woman has zero redeeming qualities and, in fact, they are rotten through and through… evil to the very core. One such man is Captain John Claggart, the antagonist of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.
Based on the 1949 stage adaption of the novel, Billy Budd is a 1962 period drama starring the sensational Robert Ryan. Peter Ustinov, who also directed the film, stars with Ryan, while the title role introduces newcomer Terence Stamp (in an Oscar-nominated best supporting actor nod). David McCallum and Melvyn Douglas are the supporting players.
While on a wartime cruise in 1797, The Avenger, a ship of the British Royal Navy, stops the merchant ship The Rights of Man which is bound for the West Indies. Needing to impress one of that ship’s men into naval service, the officers board The Rights of Man and come away with Billy Budd, a teenager. A simple boy, Billy can’t read or write, and when he gets nervous, is unable to speak and instead he stutters.
The Master at Arms on The Avenger is John Claggart (Ryan), a man as evil as the day is long. Cruel and sadistic, he rules over the crew with viciousness and brutality, finding pleasure in having the men flogged, often for infractions they’re not even aware of. All the men despise Claggart, which delights him.
Billy Budd, on the other hand, is kind, friendly, and good. When all the men complain about the Master at Arms, Billy insists that since no man takes pleasure in cruelty, there must be a reason when someone is flogged or put on report. Even after Claggart forces a sick man to stand watch, Billy believes he must have had a reason for doing so. It is not in Billy to consider that one human being would purposefully, and for no reason, hurt another.
Believing Claggart to be good deep down, Billy seeks to befriend him while topside one evening, an act which causes the man’s hatred towards Billy to increase; and when Billy refuses to take part in an assassination attempt on the master at arms, his fate is sealed. The evil in Claggart is so infuriated by the good in Billy that he will stop at nothing to destroy the boy.
Billy Budd is gripping and amazingly acted. The always-brilliant Robert Ryan positively oozes evil in this film. While Mr. Ryan often portrayed “bad guys” and did a fantastic job doing so, I find this role to be perhaps his most wicked. There is absolutely nothing decent or redeeming about Captain Claggart. He is simply rotten through and through, and Mr. Ryan’s portrayal of the evil, malevolent man is completely stellar. The Billy Budd character is kind, forgiving, caring, honest, trustworthy—the kind of person we wish there were more of in this world. Terence Stamp does a beautiful job bringing Billy to life. Peter Ustinov, who produced, directed, and starred in the film, is quite good in his role as the ship’s captain… a man torn between justice and mercy.
Fostering such questions as “Is black always black and white always white, or are there gray areas?” Billy Budd is a great discussion piece. . Be warned, it’s not a feel-good story, but it is incredibly thought-provoking and well worth watching. ♥