The novella, Billy Budd, turns Billy into a sort of Christ-like figure after his hanging. There is something about his innocence, his inability, because of his stammer, to answer the charges made against him (almost as Jesus was unwilling to defend himself). In other words, Melville saw his main character as a sacrificial lamb, in so many words, someone who was sacrificed to maintain order and decorum on those ships who were out at sea for months at a time. Without discipline, and without meting out punishment, order could not exist. That included capital punishment. It is a thought that Claggert’s mania against blond (white) Billy is a precursor to Captain Ahab and the white whale which is his manic target. Billy Budd is referred to, even in Chapter 1, as “Baby Budd”, even more reason to have the reader understand that this is a young, naïve boy who has had little experience with anything- whether the company of fellow soldiers, or the strict discipline required on ships of the British Navy. Even the name of the ship, the HMS Indomitable spells out that there can be no deviation from the voyage and the rationale for it. But, Melville makes it obvious that, no matter what else happened on this voyage, the sailors will remember what the author said was the fresh young image of the Handsome Sailor, that face never deformed by a sneer or subtler vile freak of the heart within
Today, when films are made from :classics” sometimes it is necessary to provide some sort of “hook” that catches at least a portion of the audience, and makes them feel like they are seeing something out of the ordinary. For this reason, the movie seems to be a sort of paean to homosexuality on the Navy.
Perhaps the worst part of filming what the director, Peter Ustinov, actually called “Melville’s fable” is that the movie gave some old-time actors their fifteen minutes of renewed fame: Robert Ryan as Claggert, Melvyn Douglas and Ustinov himself, and then there was blond Terence Stamp, according to his biography, in his mid-=Twenties when the film was shot. There was little naïve or fresh about Stamp. He was prettied up, so to speak. He looked, at times, like he was the homosexual idol of the crew below decks, and that the entire encounter with Claggert was really that Claggert was angry and frustrated at being denied sexual release by this “pretty blond boy”. The problem with the film, “Billy Budd” is the same that is usually true when a multi-faceted “difficult” classic bit of literature is made into a film for the masses: It is “dumbed down.” With a book, if you’re not sure about something, you can turn the pages back and re-read it. A film has to hit you with one basic premise that you can remember. And, when one sees the advertising taglines for the movie: “The Men! The Mutiny! The Might! You wonder whether this is another version of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Melville, Herman: Billy Budd in Norton Anthology: WorldMasterpieces, Vol 2: Seventh Edition
Ustinov, Peter and Bodeen, DeWitt (screenplay0 (1962) Billy Budd