Billy Budd (1962): Ustinov’s Superb Adaptation of Melville’s Novel, Starring Terence Stamp in Oscar Nominated Role

The very young and charismatic Terence Stamp plays the titular part in this powerful version, directed, co-produced, and co-written by Peter Ustinov (who also acts) of Herman Melville’s classic novel (read below).

In 1797, during the Napoleonic Wars, H.M.S. Avenger is headed into battle against the French fleet and the experience of two mutinies in the English fleet concern Captain Vere.

Captain Vere relies on his cruel, often sadistic Master-at-Arms John Claggert (Robert Ryan in top form) to maintain a rigid order and discipline aboard the ship.

When a new seaman, Billy Budd (Stamp), is pressed into service from a passing merchantman, his innocent, wide-eyed, happy-go-lucky attitude endears him to both his fellow mates as well as the ship’s officer.

His charismatic personality is resented by Claggert, whose perverse depravity makes him resent Billy’s good-natured purity, especially after the teenager’s promotion to fore-top captain.

Turning point occurs when the mean-spirited Claggert plots to put him on report and ultimately perjures himself to order to accuse Billy of conspiring to commit mutiny.

Peter Ustinov also gives a strong performance as the captain who is forced to execute the young man.

The cast also includes Melvyn Douglas, Paul Rogers, and David McCallum.

Opening to positive critical reviews, Billy Budd was commercially successful, grossing over $25 million at the box-office.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Supporting Actor: Terence Stamp

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1962, Ed Begley won the Supporting Actor Oscar for the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth.”


Running time: 123 minutes


Distributed by Allied Artists (Harvest Productions)

Release Date: November 12, 1962

Detailed Synopsis (How the Plot and Events Unfold Chronologically)

In the year 1797, the British naval vessel HMS Avenger gets into service a crewman “according to the Rights of War” from the merchant ship The Rights of Man. The new crewman is naïve and stutters when he is anxious. His shipmates indoctrinate him in their lifestyle, based on cynicism.  Budd’s steadfast optimism proves impenetrable. Asked about the horrible stew the crew eats, he says, “It’s hot, and there’s a lot of it. I like everything about it except the flavor.” The crew discovers Budd stammers in his speech when anxious.

Budd charms the crew with his innocence, but his efforts to befriend the brutal master-at-arms, John Claggart fail. Cruel and unrepentant, Claggart ontrols the crew through vicious flogging.

Claggart orders Squeak (Lee Montague) to find ways to implicate him in a planned mutiny. He then brings his charges to Captain Edwin Fairfax Vere (Ustinov). Although Claggart has no reason to implicate Budd in the conspiracy, Budd becomes a target because Billy represents everything that Claggart despises: humility, innocence, trust, optimism, and humanity.

Vere summons both Claggart and Budd to his cabin Claggart makes his false charges that Budd is a conspirator.  Budd stammers, unable to find the right respond, and he strikes Claggart, who falls backward, an unlawful act that kills him.

Captain Vere assembles a court-martial, though he’s fully aware of Budd’s simplicity and Claggart’s evil, but the captain is also torn between his morality and duty. Vere intervenes in the final stages of deliberations, which support Budd. He argues the defendant must be found guilty for striking Claggart, Budd’s superior.  Vere’s soul is torn by his decision, but his arguments pursue the letter of the law succeed, and Budd is convicted.

Condemned to be hanged from the ship’s yardarm at dawn the following morning, Budd wears his good shoes. Budd’s final words are: “I’m sorry but not guilty. I’m not afraid.  I did my duty, you did yours. God bless Captain Vere!” Vere crumbles, and Billy is hoisted up and hanged on the ships rigging.

The crew is on the verge of mutiny over the incident, but Vere stares off into the distance, troubled by his part in taking an innocent’s life.  A French vessel appears and fires on the Avenger, and in the course of battle, the ship’s rigging falls on and kills Vere.

The film ends with narrator relating Budd’s heroic sacrifice.

Note on Melville’s Novel

The novel Billy Budd was unfinished when Melville died in 1891, and then it was lost. Melville’s biographer stumbled upon it when researching the writer’s papers in 1919. Melville’s widow helped to complete it, and it was finally published in 1924. It was not until Melville’s original notes were found that the definitive version was published in 1962, the same year that Ustinov’s impressive movie was released.