Sunday, June 19, 2011
This Budd’s For You
When I was studying film in high school, I remember reading a quote by Peter Ustinov about his 1962 production of “Billy Budd.”
Ustinov, who directed, acted in, and co-wrote the screen adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella, said he had decided to shoot in black and white because “color prettifies everything” and would undermine the serious story he was trying to tell.
The line came back to me last week after all these years (I think it had something to do with the word “prettifies”) when I finally saw “Billy Budd.” And I was quite satisfied.
Even though this was his second film, Terrence Stamp is introduced in this movie—“A new face! A new talent! A great new star discovery!”—as Billy, a painfully naive merchant sailor who is impressed by the British Navy in 1797. He quickly falls afoul of Claggart, the ship's sadistic master-at-arms, and tragedy ensues.
Now I have to confess that I, an English major, never read the novella. I know, I know, shame on me. But, seriously, it’s on my list, along with War and Peace and Twilight.
Ustinov plays the ship’s captain, David McCallum—Illya Kuryakin if you’re from my generation--plays Wyatt, the gunnery officer, Melvyn Douglas plays the sail maker everyone calls “The Dansker,” and Robert Ryan, one of my favorite actors, plays the sadistic Mr. Claggart.
This was an intriguing choice and I have to say that, initially, I thought Ryan was somewhat miscast, being the only American amongst all these Englishmen. He didn’t even attempt to do a British accent, which bothered me for the first few minutes of the film. But then I got into it.
First of all, Ryan was such a powerful actor that I could watch him play any role.
Secondly, Claggart is such a vicious bastard, so unlike everyone else on board, that it almost makes sense that he sounded different from everyone else. He moves around the ship like a thundercloud and everyone on board is terrified of the guy, including the captain.
The Angel Must Hang!
But as evil as he is, Ryan brings such humanity to this character. Similarly, I thought Stamp made Billy believable even though the young man is so innocent and saintly. When these two come together, you know things are going to end badly. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but she really hates extremes.
Benjamin Britten used the story as the source material for an opera. The novella was also dramatized for television in the Netherlands, and it was done twice on television in the Fifties in what so many people call the golden days of television. (That was before Illya Kuryakin so I wouldn’t know anything about it.)
Don Murray plays Billy in the 1959 production on the DuPont Show of the Month, which also starred Roddy McDowall and Malachy McCourt.
And in 1953, Billy Budd was broadcast live with a cast that included Patrick Macnee as a young office; Basil Rathbone as the captain, and, in the starring role—I still don't believe it--William Shatner.
I saw a clip of this production and I couldn’t believe my eyes: Sherlock Holmes and Captain Kirk were sharing the same space.
I thought my head was going to explode.
Light years away from the commander of the Enterprise, Shatner has blond hair in this production and he speaks with an accent I can’t quite place. It’s kind of…strange.
And this being live TV, it wouldn’t be fun if there weren’t a near disaster.
Shatner said in a 2004 interview that early on in the broadcast Rathbone got his foot caught in a bucket and couldn’t deliver some of his first lines.
I’m trying to picture the man whom I considered to be the definitive Sherlock Holmes clattering around a soundstage like Jerry Lewis with a bucket on his foot. There’s no way to prettify that, mate.
When Holmes told Watson the game is afoot, I don’t think this was what he meant.
So I finally saw Ustinov’s film. Unfortunately, it came out in the same year as "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Damn the Defiant," two other sea sagas, and it sank at the box office.
But I’m going to try and track down Shatner’s version and I’ll even check out the opera. Then maybe I’ll read the damn book.