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A harsh lesson in law vs. justice: “Billy Budd”

Updated: Aug 3, 2018


Terence Stamp (right) in his second film appearance as sailor Billy Budd. Director Peter Ustinov filmed much of "Billy Budd" in the Mediterranean Sea. (Frame shots courtesy of Warner Archive Collection)


Blu-ray, DVD; 1962; Not Rated; streaming via Google Play, YouTube

Best extra: Commentary with Terence Stamp and Steven Soderbergh

TERENCE STAMP received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “Billy Budd.” He appreciates it, but it’s still puzzling since Stamp played the lead role in the film named for his character.

We’ll wonder along with him. The story itself had a rocky start. The film was based on the novella by Herman Melville, author of “Moby Dick.” Published 33 years after his death, it’s another seafaring yarn that explores the dark and bright sides of human nature. Left unfinished, Melville’s wife, writers and editors struggled to interpret his intentions.

Writer/director/actor Peter Ustinov (right) as Captain Vere. The story takes place during the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France.

Capt. Vere and his officers spot the merchant vessel, Rights-of-Man.

Billy Budd

Billy is taken from his merchant post on the Rights-of-Man, to become a crewman aboard the HMS Avenger.

“Billy Budd” became a passion piece for Peter Ustinov (“Spartacus,” 1960), who co-wrote the script, directed and co-starred as Captain Vere of the British Royal Navy. Set during the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France, it shows how men were impressed into the navy to fight in the war. Billy is taken from a merchant vessel, the Rights-of-Man, to become a crewman aboard the HMS Avenger.

The Royal Navy is reeling from two well publicized mutinies and tempers are edgy, especially among the men. Master of Arms John Claggart, played with sadistic, predatory calm by Robert Ryan (“The Wild Bunch,” “The Dirty Dozen”), is a scary, scary guy, Billy’s unusual beauty and good nature provokes a heightened course of cruelty in him.

We never learn what drives Claggart; that’s part of the mystery. He will not become friends with Billy, even when the young man, sensing his loneliness, offers his hand. All we learn – all anyone aboard ship knows – is that Claggart enlisted in the service rather than go to jail. He’s spent his life at sea. The story’s well-known climax arrives when Claggart pushes Billy into a physical confrontation that results in his death – and a death sentence for the young man. Striking an officer is a hanging offense.

His first day on the Avenger, Billy is involved in a skirmish below deck.

Billy and his ship mate are confronted by Mr. Claggert (Robert Ryan), the ship's master of arms, who oversees the crews' discipline.


Filmed in England and the Mediterranean Sea, “Billy Budd” is a beauty in black and white. It was shot in CinemaScope, largely associated with richly colored films. A good film negative was scanned at 2K to create the new 1080p transfer (2.40:1 ratio). Filmed by Australian cinematographer Robert Krasker, who won an Oscar for his work on “The Third Man” (1949), contrast in light and dark elements, with their definite gray tones, looks sharp and clean throughout.

Stamp’s Billy is often bathed in bright sunlight. During the commentary he shares with Steven Soderbergh, he talks about how Krasker would order him to “keep your eyes open!” Then joke about how difficult it was working in sunlight with “blue-eyed actors.”

The picture is very clean; there are no lines, dirt or scratches to be found. Detail is excellent from clothing and props to backgrounds. A fine wash of film grain enhances the cinematic experience. This is another outstanding effort from the Warner Archive Collection.


The original mono track has been upgraded to an immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Like the negative, the soundtrack was well preserved, and translates well to its new format. Dialogue is always clear, but subtitles are available for those who might have trouble with accents. Waves, creaking ropes and sails, and explosions fill the room. Antony Hopkins composed the score.

Robert Ryan (center) as Mr. Claggart.

Filmed by Australian cinematographer Robert Krasker, contrast in light and dark elements, with their definite gray tones, looks sharp and clean throughout.


There is only one – a commentary with Terence Stamp and Steven Soderbergh, who directed him in “The Limey” (1999) – and it’s a gem carried over from an earlier release. They talk about “Billy Budd,” but cover most of Stamp’s career including his roles in “The Collector” (1965) and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (1994), which terrified him. He also talks about working with directors such as Ustinov, William Wyler and Fellini, and various actors. Robert Ryan remained aloof while filming “Billy Budd,” all the better to stay in Claggart’s character.

Stamp actually won a Golden Globe in 1963 for Most Promising Newcomer for “Billy Budd.” It wasn’t his first motion picture role; that belongs to “Term of Trial,” but he’s understandably pleased with it. At just over two hours, “Billy Budd” runs a bit long for today’s audience, but the performances are worth it. Ustinov’s adaptation boasts several fine character actors including David McCallum, John Neville, and Melvyn Douglas, who career received a boost post-“Budd.”

— Kay Reynolds

Claggart pushes Billy into a physical confrontation.

Captain Vere witnesses the clash.



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