Monday, 2021 March 8, 08:02 — cinema

Billy Budd

Last night I watched Peter Ustinov’s adaptation (1962) of Herman Melville’s story Billy Budd. In 1797, a young merchant seaman is drafted onto a warship, where his sweet nature is admired by all except Claggart, the cruel master-at-arms, who resents Budd’s inability to fear him (because Budd is too innocent to see evil in anyone).

Claggart tells Captain Vere that Budd is the leader of a mutiny plot. Vere, knowing the charge to be absurd, has Claggart repeat it to Budd’s face. Budd, who (as the whole crew knows) gets tongue-tied with stress, cannot respond except with a fist. Claggart falls, cracks his head and dies.

Captain Vere, the sole witness, appoints three officers to a court-martial. They are about to acquit Budd for self-defence, but Vere sadly persuades them that they are not free to do so. They are sworn to follow the Navy’s law: striking a superior officer in wartime (whether or not the blow did him any harm) is a hanging offence, without exceptions. Can any of the officers find a way out, consistent with their oath? They cannot. Billy Budd must hang.

But perhaps there is a way out. Fealty has obligations both ways. Claggart violated his duty both to Budd and to the Navy, and thereby forfeited the protection of Budd’s duty. Arguably he became a mutineer by attempting to deprive the ship of one of its best men.

If the court-martial accepts this argument, I imagine Captain Vere repeating it to Billy and adding, “For the good of the ship, the truth of this matter must not leave the room. Mister Claggart was struck down by the hand of Providence. If your mates press you, you may tell them that you saw him fall – no more.”

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