Monday, February 1, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #5: Billy Budd (1962)

This one's an adaptation of the unfinished Herman Melville novella and its subsequent stage incarnation. Directed by Peter Ustinov, and the film debut of Terence Stamp - who got the role because he clammed up and couldn't answer properly when addressed by Ustinov. That happens to be Billy Budd's problem too.

Billy Budd is this pure soul working on a merchant ship that gets picked clean for conscripts during the Napoleonic wars. He comes off like some lucky aberration of nature so intrinsically pleasant that when faced with any kind of real malice, becomes utterly speechless. Unfortunately, the military ship he's taken to is managed by a sadistic master-at-arms, Budd's polar opposite, who enjoys torturing the sailing crew every chance he gets. Ustinov plays the ship's captain, who must somehow mediate between this brutal man and Billy Budd and crew. As you might expect from the source material, the film's characters are part of a philosophical allegory, and their relationships are meant to highlight the human conditiony stuff that urge a lot of us into cinema or any other fine such medium.

So: Check it out. Doesn't pack much in terms of high-sea adventure if that's what you're looking for, but it does, in Melville style, prove involving in its ability to present a simultaneously epic and ethical microcosm.

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