Saturday, August 14, 2010

Farewell to the Rights of Man!

Billy Budd (1962) - Ustinov
Set in Napoleonic War era, The film tells a story of an incorruptible sailor, Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) and his sadistic superior Claggart (Robert Ryan). Good natured, always smiling Budd gets recruited from the merchant ship(The Rights of Man) by Royal Navy. Soon, Budd's beauty and innocence wins over weary sailors and officers alike, except for the Master-at-Arms, Claggart who is despised both by shipmates for his cruelty without reason and by officers for being an unwelcome headache during wartime. And he is out to destroy something perfect, something beautiful.

The best part of the film is the two's on deck confrontation - no matter how hard Claggart tries to get a rise out of the angelic kid, he only finds himself defeated by Budd's innocence and straightforwardness. "Oh, no. You would charm me too, huh? Get away." He shouts.

Billy Budd, Melville's the other famous seafaring novel, has been loosely adapted to two highly homoerotic films - Beau Travail and Gohatto, both set within military ranks and holding on to the idea of 'sailor' from the Village People a tad bit too seriously.

No doubt, 22 year old Terence Stamp is gorgeous and fits the title role as the innocence and virtue personified with speech impediment. Robert Ryan gives the performance of his career (even though he's the only one on the ship who speaks with an American accent) as evil Claggart who's just as vulnerable and lonely as anybody.

Things escalate and the film turns in to a Path of Glory like courtroom drama. Ustinov directs, produces, writes and even plays a hammy role as Captain Vere who has to make an impassioned decision on the young sailors fate (he can't veer off, get it?). He solemnly declares, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" Even though it's a little heavy on its biblical notion of the sacrificial lamb for the common good, with a heartbreaking and well deserved ending, Billy Budd is well worth the trip.

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