- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Seafaring spectacles enjoyed an imposing resurgence in 2003 with the release of “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” The top-heavy titles seemed a liability, but the movies established a new gold standard in pictorial dynamism and craftsmanship for maritime swashbucklers. They remain state of the art in their specialty.

“Pirates” was the first successful attempt in two generations to revitalize a beloved tradition of comic buccaneering exemplified by Douglas Fairbanks in “The Black Pirate” and Burt Lancaster in “The Crimson Pirate.” The upshot has been another franchise colossus, arguably overscaled but irresistibly exuberant and clever. A third installment is one of this summer’s major attractions.

A further chapter or two of “Master and Commander” would be welcome, before Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany become too old to reprise their co-starring roles. It took a long time for the Patrick O’Brian naval sagas to reach the screen, and several titles remain eligible.

In the meantime, Warner Home Entertainment has released a couple of vintage evocations of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars — “Captain Horatio Hornblower” from the Warner Bros. backlog and “Billy Budd” from the extinct Allied Artists — that retain good entertainment value 56 and 45 years after their respective debuts. They may even help put the Royal Navy’s current misfortune in the Persian Gulf in a less infuriating perspective.

Gregory Peck’s incarnation of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, the most famous of literary naval captains before Jack Aubrey, reverses missions and alliances on the west coast of South America after learning that England has belatedly signed a peace treaty with Spain.

Peter Ustinov’s incarnation of Herman Melville’s equivocating Capt. Edward Fairfax Vere never seems up to the command of a man-of-war. Taking a rash fade-out liberty with Melville and a 1951 play that supplies most of the film’s structure and dialogue, “Billy Budd” concludes with Vere’s ship, incongruously renamed the Avenger, getting ambushed point-blank by a French counterpart.

It’s not crystal-clear which crew prevails as the movie ends, but at the very least, this attack magnifies the onboard demoralization after the martyrdom of foretopman Billy Budd, a personification of goodness. Although meant to be a haunting drama of ideas and moral dilemmas, which it faithfully remains in some respects, the Ustinov film (he also directed and collaborated on the screenplay) leaves the Avenger in a dubious double bind. “Master and Commander” operated from a much sounder heroic blueprint, allowing Mr. Crowe’s Aubrey to rebound from a humbling first-reel ambush.

Despite the parting confusion, Mr. Ustinov did himself proud with key elements of “Billy Budd.” For example, his choice of cinematographer was astute: Robert Krasker, whose flair for widescreen black-and-white composition remains consistent from Spanish locales to the settings at Elstree Studios.

Mr. Ustinov secured a memorable contrast at the heart of the movie: Terence Stamp, a beautifully open-faced and guileless newcomer, seemed a phenomenal find as Billy, while Robert Ryan, as his unyielding nemesis, the misanthropic master-at-arms John Claggart, had few peers at corrosive hatred and depravity. He had excelled at such dire personalities for years, notably in “Crossfire,” “Act of Violence,” “Caught” and “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Claggart seemed to be a notorious forerunner of his contemporary haters.

Commercially, the conspicuous nautical movie of 1962 was the remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” which made Marlon Brando a notorious wrecker. Since Mr. Ustinov’s movie commanded more respect at the time, it’s something of a misfortune that his film-directing career never had another prestige highlight. His acting career seemed to roll along merrily, but his rapport with a top-flight, predominantly British cast, certainly evident in “Billy Budd,” should have been repeatable later in the decade.

In an interview in 1991, Gregory Peck recalled “Captain Horatio Hornblower” as one of his favorite movies of the early 1950s. In fact, he regretted failing to reunite with director Raoul Walsh, “a wonderful old pirate,” for a sequel. They were involved in a subsequent seafaring romance, “The World in His Arms.” Derived from one of Rex Beach’s Alaskan novels, it was another proposition entirely, a poor substitute for the historical sweep and heroic virtuosity of the Forester books, which were rediscovered by BBC Television at about the time the movies finally were catching up with Mr. O’Brian’s distinguished successors.

There is no supplementary material on the “Hornblower” DVD, but a modern director, Steven Soderbergh, chats with Mr. Stamp on a commentary track for “Billy Budd.” Don’t expect much discussion of Melville — or the once acclaimed Broadway dramatization that was a more direct source for the movie. But if you’re intrigued by the emergence of Mr. Stamp in the early 1960s — and his comeback over the past decade or so (abetted in part by Mr. Soderbergh, who directed him in “The Limey”) — the commentary has plenty to offer.

At the time “Billy Budd” lifted him from obscurity, at the age of 23, Mr. Stamp was rooming with Michael Caine, an older and wiser cockney acting prospect. He recalls that Mr. Caine coached him in a West Country accent they deemed suitable for Billy. The task supposedly consisted of learning a song in regional dialect; unfortunately, Mr. Stamp doesn’t recall it.

He remembers concentrating on another song, learned from his grandmother, when playing the scene in which Billy’s serenity calms a mutinous undercurrent on the ship, a moment before his hanging. Sunshine bakes Mr. Stamp’s right profile, and a remembered lullaby soothes his nerves for a pivotal bit of silent acting.

Asked about Billy’s stammer, Mr. Stamp replies that it was not much of a technical obstacle, coming easily enough with the thought of emotion strong enough to choke off speech. However, there was one authentic stammer at the back of his mind, and it originated with a surprising subject — the late theater critic Kenneth Tynan. Mr. Stamp thought it strange that someone whose opinion terrorized so many actors should himself be at the mercy of a recurrent stammer.

TITLE: “Captain Horatio Hornblower”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1951, years before the advent of the rating system; episodes of simulated naval combat)

CREDITS: Directed by Raoul Walsh. Screenplay by Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts and Aeneas MacKenzie, based on stories and novels by C.S. Forester.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

TITLE: “Billy Budd”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1962, a few years before the advent of the rating system; occasional violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Peter Ustinov. Screenplay by Mr. Ustinov and DeWitt Bodeen, based on Herman Melville’s novella and the 1951 play by Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman.

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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