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Friday, March 15, 2013

Review: Billy Budd

Good and evil. Light and dark. Billy Budd and John Claggart.

These are the two extremes that we seen in the 1962 film Billy Budd. Set in the late 1700s, this film tells the tale of Billy Budd (Terrence Stamp), a sailor pressed into service aboard the British warship Avenger. I had to read the book that this film is based on, Billy Budd by Herman Melville, in my American Literature class, barely understanding a word of it. The young, angelic Budd quickly becomes a well liked member of the crew, ascending to the rank of foretopman. But John Claggart (Robert Ryan), the sinister master-at-arms, will have none of it. Motivated by his own evil ambitions, Claggart sets about to destroy Billy Budd, or die trying.

This book, which is technically based on the play which was based on the book, is altogether better, or at least more coherent, than the original novel. I actually understand what the characters are saying, without being bogged down by walls of incomprehensible description. The acting isn't too shabby either. Stamp does a good job in his film debut, portraying the innocent Budd as nothing short of what he is. The same goes for every actor in the movie, from Peter Ustinov, who is also the director, writer and producer of the project as Captain Vere, to Melvyn Douglas as the Dansker. I wasn't totally convinced that Claggart was the manifestation of evil by Ryan's performance, but I suppose it could be a very subtle form of evil.

There's also a great dynamic between characters, especially Billy Budd and Captain Vere, and Billy Budd and the crew. Speaking of the crew, Ustinov goes out of his way to give life and personality to the crew, fleshing out the crew members very well. This is one of the ways in which this film shows itself to be a good example of adaptation expansion. That is to say, the filmmakers added some things weren't in the book, such as the ending. In the book, the ending occurred a few days or weeks after the climax, occurs only a few minutes afterwards in the movie. Also, in the book the ship was called the Bellipotent, not the Avenger. But that's not such a big deal.

One thing about this film though is that it's not the most exciting film to watch. If the writers were going to make an adaptation expansion, they could have put in a major sea battle in the middle of the film, which would have been a  good way to bring out the goodness of Budd and the badness of Claggart, but instead we have several minutes of people sitting around talking. Admittedly, this was all in the name of good character development, but honestly is slightly bored me.

Overall though, Billy Budd is a good film. It's not the best film, and it's villain isn't as strongly evil and bad as portrayed in the book, nor is it entirely faithful to the book, but I can get over that. There are snippets of bad language in this film, not to mention an off screen hanging, but other than that,  I guess this film is a pretty safe sight.

RATING: 9/10

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