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Thursday, July 26, 2018

'Billy Budd' Blu-ray: Cinemascope Tale of Innocence Lost at Sea

The Warner Archive crystal-clear July 10, 2018 Blu-ray release of the social-commentary laden 1962 period-piece drama "Billy Budd" fills the summer film void of an epic film with depth (no pun intended.) This adaptation of the Herman Melville novel of the same name tells the 1797 tale of the titular Shanghaied young sailor. 

Peter Ustinov does yeoman's work in this Cinemascope film in that he directs and co-produces it in addition to playing Captain Edwin Fairfax Vere. The exceptional look of this shot-at-sea film and the perfect portrayal of Vere as a man who keeps his head under very trying circumstances prove that Ustinov is a genuine triple threat.

Budd (future General Zod AND Jor-El portrayor Terence Stamp) is a happy sailor aboard the merchant ship The Rights of Man to the extent of gleefully leading the crew in a rousing song when the British Navy ship the HMS Avenger shows up and asserts an effective right of scavenge in forcing Budd to literally jump ship and join Team Vere, 

"Budd" then projects a mild vibe of a modern workplace in that Budd is the slightly annoying enthusiastic newbie who is immune to the cynicism of the "veterans" We also get strong Dickensian overtones that are particularly prevelant in separate scenes in which Budd puts a positive spin on the swill that the crew eats and casually discusses being a foundling. 

The good nature of Budd puts him on the radar of gruff and tough Master-of-Arms John Claggart (Robert Ryan), who rebuffs the sweet and caring offer of friendship by Budd. The sense of a modern workplace enters the picture again on Vere granting Budd a fast-track promotion prompting Claggart to feel additional animus toward our teen seaman. 

Things further escalate on Claggart maliciously making a false accusation against Budd that leads to Vere giving the lad a chance to defend himself. Expected shock and awe leads to a tragic accident regarding which the captain aptly expresses the flaw of most legal systems that requires basing a decision on the law rather than on justice.

This in turn leads to arguably the most powerful scene in the film in which the crew experiences one of the harshest realities of both life at sea and being in the military. The "but wait there's more" surprise comes just as things seem destined to reach a conclusion that is preordained from the beginning. 

The bonus impact this time is the sad truth that things have not changed much since the 18th century setting of "Budd" or the 1962 premiere of the film. Further, the same likely will be true 56 years from now.

The special feature is commentary by Stamp and Steven Soderbergh.

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