The Angel Must Hang: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and Peter Ustinov’s film interpretation of it

Envy and malice are offended by the beauty of innocence

by Daniel Garrett Volume 20, Issue 3 / March 2016 11 minutes (2554 words)

Billy Budd by Peter Ustinov (film)
Allied Artists, 1962

Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville (novella)
Oxford World Classics, 1998

Some of the images in Peter Ustinov’s film of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor carry story and suggestion, from the very beginning: In the opening scene, after each actor speaks the name of his onscreen character as his own personal name is seen in the credits, there is a quick shot of an African statue with a chain on each wrist: do the chains indicate slavery or freedom on this merchant ship named Rights-of-Man? Are dignity and liberty recognized for Englishmen but not Africans? Is freedom imperfect, incomplete? The ship on which the men sail is an English ship, from which the likable sailor Billy Budd is drafted onto a navel ship, manned by Captain Vere and his master-at-arms John Claggart. There, on the Bellipotent, one of the men is hostile to Billy Budd and fights him: it is a kind of standing boxing-wrestling match in which the fighting men hold each other close in a strangling move, face to face, chest to chest, crotch to crotch, so that the violence between the men has an erotic dimension. When, later, master-at-arms John Claggart has a man whipped as punishment—the other sailors are not sure of the reason. Billy looks at Claggart as if questioning the master-at-arms’ decision and Claggart stares back. The mutual engagement of their eyes is noticed by Captain Edward Vere. The look between Billy and Claggart could mean attraction or repulsion. It is good storytelling. The Allied Artists film, inspired by Melville’s text, and a play by Robert Chapman and Louis Coxe, was written for the cinema by director-producer Peter Ustinov and DeWitt Bodeen. Sir Peter Ustinov (1921-2004), an artist in different fields, an intellectual and diplomat, gave further life to Melville’s work without losing integrity.

Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Sailor is a great work; and it contains at its core a conflict of both nature and principle. Its central characters are the sailor Billy Budd, the master-at-arms John Claggart, and the ship’s Captain Vere. Billy Budd is an affable and innocent but capable sailor, much liked by almost all those he knows, but for John Claggart, whose malice toward the handsome sailor blooms: John Claggart’s nature recognizes that of Billy Budd and recoils. Billy Budd had been perceived as a peacemaker by the captain of the merchant vessel Rights-of-Man on which Budd had worked, before being impressed into service during wartime by Vere’s British naval ship. The English are fighting a war with the French, a Napoleonic war; and there are not enough sailors—thus Billy is drafted and no questions are asked about the older, smart but suspect Claggart. (There was both mutiny and the fear of mutiny in the British navy.) Herman Melville suggests that Claggart has a natural depravity; and dislikes Billy Budd for the younger man’s harmlessness: thus Claggart develops a hateful passion for the young man. Claggart invents a story about Billy’s mutinous behavior; and that leads to the fulfillment of each man’s fate, to tragedy. It is a strange and haunting story; and yet one reads it and finds resonances in one’s own experience and observations. Who has not been reviled, without justice or understanding? Certainly, each of us has seen the instinctive conflict of two very different natures. Melville’s story contains transcendent insight; and the actor and director Peter Ustinov made a great and vivid black-and-white film of the book in the early 1960s, a film starring Ustinov (Captain Vere), Terence Stamp (Billy Budd), and Robert Ryan (John Claggart).

Herman Melville, the creator of Billy Budd and Moby Dick, one of America’s greatest and most visionary writers, died in obscurity, after working as a New York customs inspector. The New York-born Herman Melville (1819-91) was a cabin boy on a vessel going to England in 1837, and taught school upon coming back to the United States. The sea called to him again, and he took a South Seas trip on a whaling ship in 1841, but deserted in the Marquesas Islands, where he lived among cannibals (did Melville acquired new culinary tastes there?); then Melville left on an Australian trade ship to Tahiti, where he was imprisoned before working as an agricultural laborer. Melville became a sailor in the American navy in 1843—on a ship named the United States; and after his discharge, he began to write of his adventures. Herman Melville’s early work—including the novels Typee (1846) and Redburn (1849)—was popular, but his great masterpiece Moby Dick (1851), about the quest for revenge against nature, was not popular, nor was Pierre (1852). Billy Budd was the last thing that Melville wrote, before he died. It was decades after Melville’s death before Moby Dick was appreciated and Melville acclaimed.

In the Herman Melville text of Billy Budd, Sailor (Oxford World Classics, 1998), the sailor Billy Budd appears as someone whose presence brought peace to a quarreling crew, according to the captain on the merchant ship Rights-of-Man (page 282-283); and to Billy Budd’s shipmates on the naval vessel the Bellipotent Billy Budd appears as a living ideal, the Handsome Sailor. Billy Budd is beautiful and likable; and his beauty is no small matter. Melville declares, “He was young; and despite his all but fully developed frame, in aspect looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face all but feminine in purity of natural complexion but where, thanks to his seagoing, the lily was quite suppressed and the rose had some ado visibly to flush through the tan” (page 286). Although Melville states that Billy Budd’s face is all but feminine, there will be other comparisons that suggest the feminine. Billy Budd is compared to court beauties: “As the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd’s position aboard the seventy-four was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the highborn dames of the court” (page 286). The sailor’s only flaw may be that he stutters when he is nervous (289). An old Danish sailor refers to Billy as “Baby” (page 305) and another man calls Billy “Beauty” (307). Melville notes that though Claggart himself has a certain handsomeness, Billy Budd’s appearance is part of Claggart’s discomfort with Billy, “as to what it was that had first moved him against Billy, namely, his significant personal beauty” (311); before Melville goes on to note that envy and antipathy were borne in Claggart (311). Melville describes how Claggart looks at Billy, with a sad glance: “Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban” (321).

Yet, the fundamental nature of Claggart is not to love. “Claggart was a man about five-and-thirty, somewhat spare and tall, yet of no ill figure upon the whole…The face was a notable one, the features all except the chin cleanly cut as those on a Greek medallion…” (299); “But his general aspect and manner were so suggestive of an education and career incongruous with his naval function that when not actively engaged in it he looked like a man of high quality, social and moral, who for reasons of his own was keeping incog” (299). What else can be at the fundamental core of Claggart’s dislike of Billy Budd? “For what can more partake of the mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound such as is evoked in certain exceptional mortals by the mere aspect of some other mortal, however harmless he may be, if not called forth by this very harmlessness itself?” queries Herman Melville (308). It is Billy Budd’s innocence that disturbs Claggart most. Melville goes on to describe men who have rational temperaments that are sometimes given to bouts of madness, and says that Claggart was of that kind (310). Billy Budd does not intuit Claggart’s malice, and yet: “He thought the master-at-arms acted in a manner rather queer at times. That was all” (page 321). Claggart names Billy Budd to Captain Vere as someone dangerous, as a man cultivating mutiny.

Billy Budd had received Captain Vere’s notice before the false charge is made, leaving a positive impression on Vere: “Now the Handsome Sailor as a signal figure among the crew had naturally enough attracted the captain’s attention from the first. Though in general not very demonstrative to his officers, he had congratulated Lieutenant Ratcliffe upon his good fortune in lighting on such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall” (327). When the Captain has Claggart repeat his accusation of mutiny to Billy Budd’s face the sailor is stunned speechless (Billy “gave an expression to the face like that of a condemned vestal priestess in the moment of being buried alive”—page 331). Billy Budd strikes out at John Claggart; and the master-at-arms falls dead. Claggart’s body is moved: “It was like handling a dead snake” (332). The father in Captain Vere is replaced by the military man; and Vere organizes a trial for Billy Budd, rather than refer the case to the admiral, as Vere’s lieutenants expect. The captain affirms the practicality of the case, rather than the moral or sentimental approach: “Ashore in a criminal case, will an upright judge allow himself off the bench to be waylaid by some tender kinswoman of the accused seeking to touch him with her tearful plea? Well, the heart here, sometimes the feminine in man, is as that piteous woman, and hard though it be, she must here be ruled out” (342). Billy Budd, the beautiful, capable, good man, is condemned to die; and he is executed.

Captain Vere’s ship is a military ship in a time of war: that is why order, obedience, and authority are especially important. The authority of the nation and of the king is running from the top of the ship to its very bottom in the administration of war. To rebel against authority has a special reverberation. Mutinies have occurred on other ships—news that can give sailors ideas; but Billy had been commended for not sharing that knowledge of other mutinies upon his arrival with his new shipmates. Yet, Billy Budd, beautiful and loved, a young man of responsibility, comes to embody rebellion. Is he to be killed for his beauty too? In the Peter Ustinov film Billy Budd, a lean but thoughtful work, not long after Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) has joined the crew, when John Claggart (an appropriately tough Robert Ryan) interrupts one of the sailors’ meals, the sailors are sitting low on the floor, and he, Claggart, enters: he is photographed from the back, the lower half of his body in clinging trousers—his butt the principal image (which may mean that he is pelvis prominent to the men). Claggart is a figure of order and a figure of conflict. Claggart intentionally spills soup and blames one man who is not feeling well—and Claggart tells that man to pick up the bowl and clean up the spill. The two exchange argumentative words; and Claggart entertains the idea that the arguing man and the others may want to do Claggart violence, possibly knifing him in the back. Claggart teases them with the thought. He shows how fearless he is, turning his back to them. It is the introduction of an evil thought that gives them a possibility, an option.

The master-at-arms Claggart, responsible for the dissemination and retrieval of weaponry, as well as the observance of general rules, is described by Captain Vere (Ustinov) as a force for order, something especially needed in a time of war. Claggart, however, is idiosyncratic; and it is not always clear why he doles out punishment, for principle or perversity. It could be for a genuine infraction of the rules or because someone has shown some bit of personality or independence. That makes him a force for order and conflict; a man of contradictions. Claggart has taken to instructing his minion to messing up Billy Budd’s hammock so that a charge against Billy can be entered into the ship’s report—that will make it easier to punish Billy if Claggart desires it. When a man with whom Claggart argued becomes ill, Claggart cajoles that man—through the attitude of his questioning—to take up his duties manning the ship’s high sail and the man, despite Billy’s attempt to help, falls to his death. Another man curses Claggart. When the captain inquires into the dispute, Billy tells the truth, which does not jibe with Claggart’s account. The captain learns that Billy was accurate in his description, but feels demoting Claggart would put Claggart in danger and the ship in jeopardy. Order—or the appearance of order—must be maintained.

On the night that Billy Budd sees Claggart alone on the ship’s deck, looking out at the stars and on the water, Billy approaches him for a conversation, it is an example of Billy ignoring the barriers of rank and temperament. (Stamp as Billy seems both without guile and easily seductive.) Early on, as Billy had begun to work on the ship, hoisting and tying sails, Billy’s friendliness inclined him to wave at both Claggart and Captain Vere (Ustinov’s Vere registered surprise), an open, simple, but intimate gesture that indicates a lack of intimidation and an inclination to meet man to man. There are all sorts of possibilities, possibilities spoken and unspoken, professional and personal, that can be read into Billy’s conduct. Billy’s talk with Claggart under the stars is insightful—Billy thinks Claggart sometimes hates himself. Claggart is at first calmed to have someone perceive his private thoughts, but he is repulsed by the idea that Billy charms everyone—a kind of power—and is now charming him, Claggart, too. Claggart tells Billy to get away from him.

Billy Budd intervenes in an attempt on Claggart’s life: someone attempts to stab Claggart in the back. Rather than gratitude, Claggart is further enraged by Billy Budd. Claggart refuses to see or accept Billy Budd’s fundamental goodness. When another officer stumbles upon the altercation, the lieutenant questions Claggart who says—lying—that nothing is amiss. The officer says that if nothing is amiss there should be no word spoken against either man in the next day’s report. However, Claggart cannot control himself: the next day, Claggart conveys a story to Captain Vere about Billy and a couple of the other men planning a mutiny. Billy Budd, shocked into silence, strikes Claggart, killing him. Should Billy be convicted for killing a superior or excused for responding to a false charge with his fist? Billy Budd is hanged. What does it mean to observe the letter of the law but not its spirit, to respect the appearance of justice rather than the thing itself? Billy Budd, a story of good and evil, is parable of the military, of society. The system of authority is affirmed but the rights of men denied. It is more than that, a story of human perversity.

(Article submitted October, 2013)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

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