While Billy Budd (1962) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) take widely different approaches to a period milieu, they are both at their best when they spotlight their charismatic performers. The literary-sourced Budd and life-based Bean were recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
I’m generally not fond of the dudes on a ship genre, but Billy Budd has its own rhythm and transcends any genre trappings. I’ve found that my enjoyment of high seas drama depends dramatically on which dudes are aboard and that is one of the strong points of this film based on a stage play drawn from Herman Melville’s final, and posthumously published, work.
Set in 1797, all of the action takes place on a naval vessel where naïve crewman Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) has been taken from a merchant ship to serve. With dreamy eyes and dandelion fluff hair, the crew is baffled by the gentle, optimistic Budd, though they eventually admire his positive perspective. The sadistic master-at-arms John Claggart (Robert Ryan) feels threatened by Billy’s comfort with and desire to befriend him. He attempts to frame the young man for attempted mutiny, which ends up being deadly on multiple counts.
In his film debut, Stamp makes Billy an almost otherworldly character. He always seems a step removed from the pain and fear that plagues the rest of the crew members. This frightens Claggart, who is perturbed that he can't control him with fear and perhaps a bit disturbed by his attraction to Budd. He is the sort of man who gets an intense thrill from whippings and drawing blood, that this joyful boy should exist in his orbit dampens that erotic charge.
The captain of the ship (Peter Ustinov, who also directs) knows how destructive Claggart is for his men, but he fears Billy more; he could lead the crew to a more lusty mutiny than the master-at-arms. As a disillusioned elderly sailmaker, Melvyn Douglas, wearily watches Budd move towards his doom, though even he can’t see where it all is leading.
Billy Budd hits its stride when it begins to focus on one-on-one conversations. The tension between Ryan and Ustinov, and especially Stamp and Ryan is presented with menacing intimacy. These private moments form the dark core of a story the crew cannot begin to understand, increasing the overall tension. What is expressed stands equal to the repressed fears and desires of all aboard but the innocent Billy.
Special features include an interesting commentary in which director Steven Soderbergh talks with Terence Stamp about his experiences making the film. Perhaps because the pair worked together on The Limey (1999), they have a good rapport and their conversation has a nice flow.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a more comic enterprise. Its humorous success varies, depending on who has the spotlight in this loosely history-based western full of cameos. Director John Huston pulls together some good tall tales, but never weaves them into a cohesive whole.
As the frontier-based Bean, Paul Newman moves from the bad side of the law to impose his own morally-flexible definition of justice. He lusts after the distant star of the stage Lily Langtry (Ava Gardner), falls for a young Mexican girl (Victoria Principal), and tangles with an unruly cast of characters.
Newman is the weakest part of Roy Bean. He doesn’t have the ornery toughness or the comic juice to make his crusty character pop. While the actor could be funny in the right circumstances, he had a bad habit of seeming more amused by himself than the audience. That quality is at its worse here.
A diverse cast of characters take up the slack, in a series of amusing vignettes. Anthony Perkins sets aside his jittery persona in favor of a wry restraint as traveling man of the cloth. Leaning into his gravelly voice, Tab Hunter works against his pretty boy looks as a shifty, but oddly sympathetic outlaw. Most amusing is Stacy Keach as the bandit Bad Bob. No one relishes an over-the-top role like this actor; he looks like he is having the time of the life, which adds to the humor. Roddy McDowall and Ava Gardner also demonstrate reliable ensemble chops as a hapless lawyer and Langtry respectively.
In the end, the mess of stories, punctuated by a scene-stealing black bear, becomes a bit exhausting, but the cameos help to renew interest when the action flags.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.