Billy Budd is a flower not yet fully bloomed, weeded-out by the cruel injustice of a rigid Rule Of Law that suppresses morality and appeal. Peter Ustinov deftly adapts the great Herman Melville novella, a story of the harsh life amongst England’s warships and the tyranny of maritime Martial Law.
The angelic Billy Budd is pressed into service, leaving behind him THE RIGHTS OF MAN and venturing towards his cruel fate aboard the AVENGER. But Billy is so damn innocent and likeable that he adapts easily to his new life, and earns friendship and respect of the crew, including the Captain. But the sadistic Claggart can’t stomach Billy’s naïve presence. Billy is a man so tender that he doesn’t even despise Claggart and peers beneath the veneer of tyrannical pugilism to see a lonely and empty vessel.
Peter Ustinov films in glorious black and white Cinemascope, this wide-screen cinematography utilized in the tight quarters and confines of the tall ship. The period detail and set designs are amazingly realistic, with characters often framed amid the deep focus of the claustrophobic interiors or vast calm sea. This wide-angle photography creates a subtext that makes the characters seems smaller than the story, which diminishes human life in contrast to the narrative’s morality. Terence Stamp is wonderful as the baby-faced Budd, his shock of hair and gentle attitude an untainted human template. But the stuttering youngster lashes out when confronted by the bold-faced lies of Claggart…and becomes victim to Martial Law. Even the Captain and his staff don’t want to hang Billy, that they understand the circumstances of the assault, but they are held captive to the unwavering Law that demands execution without appeal.
What is Law without individual Justice? Fascism.
FINAL GRADE: (A+)