This historical drama-adventure film, set in England in 1797 during the Napoleonic wars, was produced, directed, and co-written (with Robert Rossen and DeWitt Bodeen) by Peter Ustinov. from Coxe and Chapman’s stage play of Herman Melville’s short novel and, what many consider his second masterpiece after “Moby Dick“, “Billy Budd”.
Billy Budd is a “handsome sailor”, very popular with his shipmates, who strikes and inadvertently kills his false accuser (of mutiny!) master-at-arms John Claggart (Robert Ryan). The ship’s Captain, Edward Vere (Ustinov) recognizes Billy’s lack of intent but claims that the law of mutiny requires him to sentence Billy to be hanged.
Ustinov cast a then-unknown Terence Stamp as beautiful Billy. He became an overnight sensation, causing the otherwise unremarkable film to become hugely profitable, and he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor of 1962 losing out to Ed Begley in “Sweet Bird of Youth”. Of course, many, including myself, would argue that Billy is the picture and that the rest of the cast is supporting him!
The reason for Claggart’s jealousy of Billy is never explained. We presume it is due to his stunning good looks and his unbounded optimism, things that Claggart no longer possesses. However many, including gay composer Benjamin Britton, who wrote his famous opera based on the Melville novel, maintain that there is an undercurrent of homoeroticism between Billy, Claggart, and Vere and that this is a Queer novel and a Queer film. Sometimes I feel this, sometimes I don’t. I have not seen the opera.