Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Billy Budd's Robert Ryan: "I Am What the World Has Made Me"


One day last week I found myself viewing the dvd of a little known film version of Herman Melville's Billy Budd (1962). Coincidentally, that Tuesday, November 11th was Veteran's Day. It also happened to be the 99th anniversary of the birth date of a superb and too little appreciated actor, Robert Ryan. Mr. Ryan appears in Billy Budd as Master-at-Arms John Claggart, a character who is often described as the personification of evil. Explaining his demeanor to an officer, Ryan, in character, says defiantly "I am what I am and what the world has made me."

His opposite was played by an inexperienced yet charismatic 23 year old son of a tugboat worker, Terence Stamp. The angelic looking actor was, after an interview for the part in which he did little but stammer, making his film debut in this movie playing the lead, Billy Budd. The film was co-written by Peter Ustinov (with DeWitt Bodeen), and Ustinov also produced, directed and acted in the movie, giving a subtle performance as a ship's captain caught in the middle of an impossible situation.

Despite the note of rollicking adventure on the high seas signaled by the amusing poster at top left, this engrossing black and white film has few cinematic ruffles and flourishes, but concentrates on the story of a ship in wartime, some of the men on her, and the events of a few days. Even the credits are startlingly spare, with each actor identifying their character's name as their actual name appears briefly on screen...more

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