I am a lover of British cinema, and also coming from a Royal Navy family background, I am surprised I have let such a gem of a movie go unnoticed for so long.
Billy Budd is a magnificent film, well shot and beautifully cast.
Peter Ustinov, David MaCallum and Melvyn Douglas all deliver great performances, but the two film stealing performances come from Robert Ryan as Claggart, the sadistic master-at-arms and Terance Stamp as the affable and likable rating William Budd.
Set aboard a Royal Naval vessel during the height of the Napoleonic Wars, Billy Budd tells the story of one mans overwhelming kindness and goodness and its effect upon a Captain and his officers and crew.
All take Billy to their hearts except Claggart a lash-happy sadist who evil to the extreme, cannot fathom Billy's child-like innocence. He looks upon it as a sort of germ that will contaminate him in some way and sets out to destroy Budd and the high ideals he holds.
Billy, so complete in his goodness, still tries to befriend Claggart, refusing to hate him, and even defending him against an embittered crew out for Claggarts murder.
Billy's kindly disposition towards him only enrages Claggart more and serves to double his attempts to get Budd at his mercy, of which he plans to show none.
It is one such attempt that proves to be the downfall, not only of Claggart and Billy, but the whole crew.
Claggart brings a false accusation of Mutiny against Budd, in an effort to see him hanged. Billy who is unable to speak in periods of high emotion answers in the only form of expression left to him. He lashes out at Claggart dealing him a fatal blow to the head.
There follows a shipboard court-martial, where Billy is put on trial for Claggarts murder.
The Captain and his officers desperately want to acquit Billy. They knew how Claggart had been treating the men and knew in particular of his consuming hatred for Billy. They are also too aware of Billy's nature and they know murder with malice aforethought would be quite beyond him.
However, bound by the combined rules of War and that of the Navy, they have no choice but to impose the sentence of death upon Billy, and all four officers with lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes are forced to sign the article of execution.
One scene that sticks out among all of them, is when the Captain played with a humane but tortured air by Peter Ustinov, visits the condemned Budd in the cell on the night before his hanging.
He tells Billy that 'he is as inhuman in his goodness as Claggart was inhuman in his evilness' He tells Budd that he wishes he could he could have is 'fury and anger' instead of his 'admiration and respect', that had not wained, despite the Captains difficult decision.
'Don't be afraid' He says to Billy.
'I'm not afraid sir,' replies Budd, 'I've always done my duty aboard this ship, I understand that you also have to do yours' With this the Captain rushes from the cell, driven by guilt and overwhelming sadness and no longer able to look upon this man for whom he has the utmost affection but who will have to die upon his order.
I have seen many tear-jerking films, but Budd's final walk to the noose has to be one of the most heartbreaking scenes in any movie, walking slowly from officer to officer, he tries to make eye contact with all of them, flashing them his innocent smile, maybe in an effort to appease the guilt he knows they must be feeling, his final kind and selfless act.
But the officers themselves, grief stricken and guilt ridden, cannot accept this last gesture and force themselves to avert their eyes as he passes.
In the memorable line one of the ratings turns to Dansker, the old danish seaman played by Melvyn Douglas and asks why Claggart was not there witnessing the punishment. (The crew had not been told of Claggarts death which had happened only hours before) Dansker turns to the inquisitive sailor and says, 'he is here.' and turns to look towards the noose flapping unanimously in the wind.
You really feel love and pity for Billy and anger and disgust at the situation as he is drummed to the noose, hoping against hope that every beat would be the one where the Captain would take stock of his senses and reverse the sickening order.
Yet with all, the regrettable hanging takes place not without Billy uttering his final words aloud to the crew, "God bless Captain Vere" another selfless act designed to avert the crew from taking mutinous action against the officers who had brought about his execution.
The Captain, then loses all the detachment of an officer at sea and weeps aloud at the unjust murder he feels he has now committed.
This film has left a lump in my throat which I feel at this very moment, will never subside. I kind, good and decent human being, being sacrificed because of the law....a law that had to operate without the necessary justice which is supposed to back it up.
The Navy of the day I suppose had no choice...today the circumstances would have been taken into account, they would have been carefully weighed on the scales of justice before the sword was used with the other hand.
This film is not to be missed... but the emotionally weak, like I so obviously am, may find the end very upsetting and disturbing.