Time for another double-barreled review, and like the last one, both films are from 1962! Today we'll be looking at two fine Naval epics, each set during the Napoleonic Wars: Peter Ustinov's Billy Budd and Lewis Gilbert's HMS Defiant (aka Damn the Defiant!). The two films have virtually identical subject matter and setting, yet are very different. Both films, however, are certainly recommended.
Based on a Herman Melville tome, Billy Budd is not so much a sea story as a mediation of law, justice and innocence - a maritime A Man for All Seasons or The Crucible, if you will. As such, it often comes across as a very stuffy filmed play. That it works is primarily due its fine set of actors and a well-written script.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the British man-o'-war HMS Avenger impresses young merchant seaman Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) into service. The naive and friendly Billy wins over most of the crew, but earns the suspicion of his officers - and the hatred of sadisitic master-at-arms John Claggart (Robert Ryan). Claggart is despised by the crew, and after the accidental death of a fellow seaman, Claggart turns full-force on Billy, attempting to convince Captain Vere (Peter Ustinov) that Billy is conspiring to mutiny. Billy accidentally kills Claggart, and Vere and his officers must determine whether he's guilty of murder.
To be blunt, Billy Budd is not the most cinematic of films. Despite use of a real ship and a handful of nice seascape shots, the movie is mostly set below decks, with a very claustrophobic feel enhanced by the black-and-white photography. The film has many lengthy dialogue sequences, and no action scenes - this wouldn't be a complaint if this weren't a navy film set during wartime. Ustinov handles his co-stars well, to be sure, but his camera blocking and technical direction is rather rote and undistinguished. As it is, Budd comes across as a filmed play throughout, with all the inherent limitations; an exciting, conventionally entertaining film it is not.
However, in other areas - namely the story, characters and themes explored - Ustinov scores a home run. Billy himself is a cipher, more of a symbol of innocence destroyed than a character, but the rest of the cast is vividly portrayed. Claggart is an utterly loathable villain, yet manages to avoid being a streotype; a criminal press-ganged into service, he transferred his sadism into a skill which has served him well. More than anything else, he is a product of the cruel system. More disgusting is Captain Vere himself. He seems well-meaning if ineffectual at first, but his utter lack of flexibility is more insidiously evil than Claggart's cartoon cruelty. Despite his callousness towards human life, Vere has the gall to claim Billy's fate is not his doing. There's a grain of truth here, but he gets no credit for divesting himself of the power provided by his uniform.
Budd's mediation on law and justice is its best aspect. The film's high point is Captain Vere coldly and brutally rationalizing why Billy must be guilty of murder, in spite of the seeming ease with which he and his officers can pardon Billy. It's one of the most cold-blooded speeches I've ever heard, cruelly rationalizing the avoidable destruction of a man. Law is meant to be indifferent and impartial, without passion or prejudice; but in circumstances such as these, it is cold and cruel. The questions the film raises are certainly pertinent to this day; is it just to break an unjust law? Is following orders an acceptable excuse for atrocities and murder?
What primarily makes the film are the performances. An impossibly young Terence Stamp gives a fine star turn as Billy, who in other hands might have been unconvincing. However, the film is stolen by its distinguished supporting cast. Robert Ryan, who made a career of playing nasty, sneering bad guys, plays Claggart as evil personified - mean, manipulative, unfair, cruel and vindictive, yet tormented if not sympathetic. Nobody can raise an eyebrow or sneer quite like Ryan. Peter Ustinov gives an excellent performance as well, putting his usual bumptiousness on hold; his character convincingly develops from ineffectual captain to cold-hearted Pontius Pilate. The supporting cast is populated by a plethora of fine actors, including Melvyn Douglas, John Neville, Paul Rogers, David McCallum, Cyril Luckham, and Niall McInnes.
Billy Budd is not a truly great film, but it's certainly intelligent and thoughtful, and worth a look from a thoughtful viewer.
Rating: 8/10 - Highly Recommended
Our second feature succeeds on an entirely different level. While Billy Budd looked at the machinations of law and justice, HMS Defiant is a straight-forward sabers-out action-adventure film. As such, it works beautifully, sacrificing the character and thematic depth of the previous film for bravura entertainment value.
Again, the setting is the Napoleonic Wars, this time on the titular British Naval vessel. Kindly Captain Crawford (Alec Guinness) is the ship's master, unaware of the trouble brewing beneath his very nose. His new First Lieutenant Scott-Padget (Dirk Bogarde) is a sadistic, well-connected schemer with a habit of undermining his captains. Even worse, several of his crewmen, led by Vizar (Anthony Quayle), are plotting a fleet-wide mutiny to redress low pay and poor food. Crawford repeatedly clashes with his lieutenant as they sail to meet a convoy in the Meditteranean, even though odds are that the fleet isn't there, with Scott-Padget manipulating the crew and his fellow officers into submission - using Crawford's own son (David Robinson), a newly minted midshipmen, as a pawn. Ultimately the crew (who respects Crawford but hates Scott-Padget) mutinities, but with a French fleet bearing down on them, they must make a decision whether to run or fight.
HMS Defiant is primarily an action flick, with story and characters secondary. The film moves along at a brisk pace, characters broadly defined but very well-portrayed by a seasoned cast. The three-way conflict between the good captain, the evil lieutenant and the grumbling crew is well-established, and Scott-Padget's heinous scheming makes him an easily hateable villain. The conclusion of the film, however, seems a bit rushed; the movie possibly could have been better if it had explored the consequences of the mutiny more thoroughly, but it's so entertaining that this lack of depth can be forgiven.
Director Gilbert expertly handles the spectacle; it's a beautiful picture, with Christopher Challis providing beautiful color cinematography of the bounding main and the sparkling Mediterranean; there are a few obvious matte-paintings/sets at times, but these are forgivable lapses. The movie's big naval battles are filmed with aplomb, flourish and excitement, with Dirk Bogarde having a thrilling cutlass-duel with a French officer that Errol Flynn would envy; the final battle in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the fights with the river junks in The Sand Pebbles and maybe the maelstrom in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End are the only cinematic naval battles I'd put in the same class.
Alec Guinness plays Crawford as his usual stern but kindly authority figure a la Prince Feisal or Yevgraf Zhivago (or Obi-Wan Kenobi); he's fine but a bit stiff, and this is far from his best performance. Dirk Bogarde easily steals the film from Guinness; his Iago-esque treacherous mate is a truly disgusting rotter, with more complexity and subtlety than Ryan's similar character in Billy Budd. The standout supporting turn is by the great Anthony Quayle, who gives one of his best performances as the conflicted Vizar, torn by desire for justice and love of country.
HMS Defiant is a great rollicking old school adventure film, and comes highly recommended.
Rating: 8/10 - Highly Recommended