A statute of the British naval regulations of 1797 prescribed that no officer of Her Majesty's armada could wear a beard. It is a shock, indeed, to view Peter Ustinov with a clean-shaven countenance. Yet Mr. Ustinov's eventual victory in his battle against eighteenth century decorum must indicate the decline of Britain and her navy; the multi-talented Ustinov--producer, director, co-writer, and star of Billy Budd--completely dominates this ambitious production of Melville's novel.
The film begins clumsily. As Bill Budd is impressed from his merchant ship, the "Rights of Man," to serve on Captain Vere's man-of-war, every attempt is made to set the scene for his tragic confrontation with society. Budd cries out, "Good-bye, 'Rights of Man,'" and the second lieutenant angrily but too obviously misinterprets the ambiguity. With ever more pain-staking care, the discontent of the "Avenger's" crew is endlessly thrust before the audience. Master-at-arms Claggart is not yet allowed to be more than a puppet of the director.
In constructing the foundation for the murder and trial, Ustinov directs the photography almost too brilliantly. He lays out each shot so carefully that the movie's beginning emerges as a collection of still-life photographs, not as a sea story of the Napoleonic Wars.
Only when Ustinov allows the characters to establish their own identities does the pace of the picture pick up. Suddenly the viewer forgets Melville's tale of a tradition-bound society and the Christ-like foretopman. Instead, the film becomes a continuing story of three characters each unable to understand the other. Of the three, Ustinov easily dominates.
Terence Stamp, as Billy Budd, is authentically simple. When he prefaces his hanging with the slightly reminiscent cry, "God bless Captain Vere," he does not portray Christ; he is a touching, naive sailor unable to understand the evil around him. He seems insanely stupid, yet real, when he fails to understand Claggart's malice and vengeful eyes.
Claggart (played by Robert Ryan) himself cannot comprehend the spectacle before him; he forces himself to see evil in Billy. In a pathetic scene, he exhorts Squeak to portray Budd as a mutineer. Ryan plays the perfect villain; watching a whipping delights him to the point of ecstasy.
Captain Vere, played so well by Ustinov, is the least comprehending yet most convincing of all. He fails to understand the law which he must invoke during wartime. He compels his three lieutenants to accept his cold interpretation of Billy's crime, though he would wish otherwise. In the trial scene, Ustinov is not caught between his feelings and society, as Vere is in Melville. Instead, Ustinov's hesitancy in convicting Budd reflects a striking inner conflict.
Thus, the film presents the story of three characters who appeal to the audience as individuals. In several scenes, however, the movie awkwardly attempts to include some of the symbolism of Melville's novel.
In the closing action, Captain Vere is killed by a falling mast. His body lies in a pool of blood amidst the rubble of battle. Suddenly, the camera swings to an aerial shot of the duelling French and British ships. As the movie ends, the narrator assures the audience that despite the death of the innocent Budd, "history will see the victory of justice."
Perhaps Ustinov's pride prevented him from leaving his prostrate body before the audience. Nevertheless, the movie's assertion that all is right in the world seriously vitiates the credibility of the film.