Billy Budd - (1962) dir. Peter UstinovNow this is a movie (having been a novella, a play and an opera). Blessed with history’s judgment (certificate) of significance, Ustinov has tackled the material without conceding anything to the stylistic mannerisms of nouveau vague or a wide-screen aesthetic, though the use of that format is mostly advantageous. Here is a classically constructed film with great performances. What is a great performance in a film? One that conveys the existential significance of a conflict without calling attention to the act of projecting it. By that measure Ustinov's adaptation has none of the theatrical performances and caricatures one encounters in Lean's adaptations of Dickens (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist)--the kind that shout to the rafters to dispel all ambiguity, effectively chasing away any trace of nuance in the process.
Ustinov’s cast is uniformly excellent. My one slight reservation is Robert Ryan’s portrayal of Claggart. He underplays his enmity, to be sure, but comes up a bit short in the process. I applaud his intention to humanize Claggart and make his villainy credibly banal and genuinely malific. But Ryan fails to fully convey the bitterness, envy and repressed yearning that would induce a frisson of appalled recognition. Had he emphasized the malevolence, on the other hand, he would risked the opposite offense, over-playing in the manner of Lean's characterizations. Ryan had to walk a thin line, with perils on either side of ambi-valence. Robert Ryan makes a convincing scum-bag, malcontent and social deviant (as Cross-fire, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, The Naked Spur amply demonstrate) but does not convey that final degree of malice the character of Claggart requires.
What is required of performance in terms of emphasis is contingent upon the characterization around the role in question. Ryan's portrayal feels a bit flat and undercharged, yet it could be argued that his insularity, his recessed perch among the others, makes his portrayal of Claggart all the more inscrutable and sinister.
What role the conspicuous absence of a British accent plays in my asssessment, I can only speculate. Imagine Trevor Howard (who’d just played the Captain Blye in Mutiny on the Bounty) in this role. Something like his magnitude of seething malice, razor-sharp focus and frightful spleen are qualities Claggart should convey. To do so while remaining believably human--vulnerable--was the special gift of Howard. Ryan's affable American core leaves one feeling that he is playing a role--excellently, yet incompletely covered by the shadow he projects.
Billy’s trial feels a bit like King Marke's speech in Tristan in dispersing the ardor of action through the sober focus of rational reckoning. With it the conflict of justice (criminal law vs. military law in a time of war) comes to a head, and our sense of out-rage bears mortifying fruit. Conflicts of justice are well-represented in emplotments going back to Antigone, in which the conflict is between laws of state (the King) and the rites and rituals of the family hearth. Antigone disobeys the decree to leave her brother’s body to rot in the open and buries him according to the most primordial law of all--to honor one's own in death. In Antigone this conflict sets up the rest of the play, which is about the consequences of Creon’s decree (disobedience, suicide, condemnation); hubris (pride), and its tragic consequences. There is a chorus in Billy Budd too, but it is kept in check when its angel of mercy is lead to the noose. In place of hubris we have a decent man (Captain Vere) wanting to do what is just under the circumstances. All members of the military tribunal on board acquit Billie of intending to kill Claggart. His blow was a substitute for a sense of indignation he could not give words to. Nonetheless, his action caused the death of his commanding officer, and therefore, under the code of law in force at a time of war, he is guilty of murder and deserves to be hanged.
My disappointment was in part due to the way in which Captain Vere, with hypothesizing disinterest and dispassion, leads the members of the tribunal to reconsider, in light of the cold letter of the law, their acquittal of Billie on the grounds of his personal motivation and character. It becomes a court procedural, a moment of grudging affirmation of the law as it stands over merely human or psychological considerations. This is different from a conflict about royal decrees, less immediate and more abstract. It represents, in Robert Kegan’s developmental conceptuality, the conflict between interpersonal (the other as non-relative responsibility, mirror and equal of the self) and institutional selves (the self as identified with and ally of the institution, ideology, law, state being served). In effect it is a conflict about allegiance and ultimate authority. The tribunal exists to serve the law, not as Billy's friends or neighbors. That they are both at once, but must be only the arm of the law for the sake of legality, but not justice, struck me as both inhuman and oddly majestic. The horror of the triumph of reason as the consequence of Law.
I suspect Melville's intention was to turn us against the law entirely, rather than the discomfiting sense of ambivalence I experienced, but I can't be sure. That we are supposed to feel horror at the waste of life seems clear enough.
To have the turning point that sets up the ‘resolution’ of the plot hinge on this moment of reflective conflict seemed anti-climactic, even perverse. The moment Captain Vere hesitates to accept the initial verdict one realizes what is to about to unfold: an innocent will be lead to slaughter, the letter of the law enforced for its own sake. For the sake of the institution of justice. Melville’s message seems to be: justice is unjust and in some cases even evil.
The perverse and mortal injury inflicted on a hapless victim, a paradigm of beautiful humanity, fills one with outrage. For beauty is what points us to the consumation of life, impregnating and inspiring us to bear fruit. By comparison the execution of penal law, which must always be arbitrary, is an instrument of vengeance, apportioning retribution as negation of privilige, even the privilige of life itself.
To take the life of such a well-loved man should lead to mutiny. It does not. The attempted rebellion is kept in check by prudence, ultimately by fear. The ‘criminal’ is led on deck to the noose and, after blessing Captain Verre, who turns away in horror at this last manifestation of saintly humanity, is hoisted aloft to his final struggle. The law--but not justice--prevails because of one man doing his duty. Presumably his pride in carrying out the sentence to the letter will outlive the momentary mortification of watching the robbery.
One might wonder if Melville has not gone a little overboard here in having Billie bless the captain. It elevates Billy into the realm of Christ-like numinosity. But it works, dramatically speaking, and that’s enough to justify it.
Claggart’s false accusation may be understood as the attempt to destroy the source of his mortification and sorrow, the innocence of Billy, out of shear envy. The question of interpretation regarding the supposed homo-erotic tensions seems comes down to the question of love, not sexual attraction. I think Claggart would have resented, more than the challenge to his authority, the sense of his own weakness in the presence of Billy’s radiant purity of heart and guilelessness. Such a motive would make him even more evil. The world is intended to love Billy, and Claggart represents the taint of humanity confronting grace; the failure of the erotic as the only response ultimately commensurate with Billy’s beauty, viz., its idealization.