Perils on the Poop Deck: the Voyeurs 3
Imagine my shock upon reading the entry for ‘Queer cinema’ in Susan Heyward’s Cinema Studies and gradually realizing that my knack for subverting just about any film I’ve ever seen with a homosexual subtext had an actual name—Queer theory—having been in practice since the era that gave us Reaganomics and Rubik’s Cube. I automatically felt this overwhelming blush of embarrassment, uttering under my breath, “So, it’s called Queer theory, huh? Well, it looks like I missed the boat on that one.” And speaking of boats… The film, Billy Budd, is awash with maritime mis-en-scenes and seamen (or is it semen?) adrift in the bare-chested posturing of homoerotic semiotics, phallic extensions, and dialogic double-entendres—all under the purview of a queer-theoretical lens, mind you.
Before I get too involved in the examination, exposal, and transduction of these diegetic gay signifiers in Billy Budd, let’s look at Queer theory’s description. According to Heyward, “Queer theory can open up texts and lead us to read texts that seem straight differently—or view them from a new and different angle. Thus queer reading can reveal that you are watching (reading) something far more complex than you originally thought you were” (p.309). This aptitude to supplant the deeply-rooted heterosexual traditions instituted in most contemporary cultures and enforced by the doctrines of patriarchal society isn’t as easy as it sounds. However, as Heyward noted, once such a subversive interpretation has been attained, it can lend clarity and insight to an otherwise stagnant sociocultural assertion/assumption.
Under the scrutinization of this queer lens, Billy Budd transcends its rather narrow, narrative limitations based on 18th –century British naval history, in 1960’s cultural norms, and under the watchful gaze of Hollywood’s Production Code Authority (PCA); thereby, attaining queer-political transfiguration within the film’s 123-minute run. As Harry Benshoff notes in his essay, “Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-Military Film,” from the book Sleaze Artists, such films like Billy Budd “raised significant and complex questions about masculinity and sexual identity and that the borders between male homosocial and homosexual desire…were not always clear cut” (p.90). In this cinematic adaptation of the Herman Melville novella, we find these questions manifesting themselves in their totality within the cores of Billy Budd’s three main characters: Master-at-Arms Claggart, Captain Vere, and Billy Budd himself. Upon a queer-theoretical reading of the film, each of these characters assumes a pre-Stonewall perspective on homosexuality in a society and culture firmly entrenched in heterosexual society and culture.
For instance, John Claggart “can best be understood as a repressed homosexual: he is both attracted to and repulsed by Billy…and so will not allow himself to be physically or emotionally touched by him” (Benshoff, p.78). Within the films first 15 minutes, Claggart’s fascination with Budd is established as the master-at-arms exchanges prolonged glances with young seaman. Claggart’s penetrative stares at Budd do not go unnoticed either. Amidst the film’s first flogging scenes, the camera cuts from Claggart’s stare to Budd’s several times with a slightly extended cut of Capt. Vere observing the two men’s exchanged glances in-between; this third gaze—Vere’s invisible gaze—prefigures Claggart’s voyeuristic fascination with Budd throughout the rest of the film as well as an eroticized fetishization of a later flogging. Vere’s third stare establishes the ‘love triangle’ aboard the Avenger and the focus for the rest of my discussion.
Love triangles aside, Claggart’s sexual repression is transmogrified by his own self-loathing over internal desires into externalized acts of sadism disguised as anal-retentive adherence to military rules and regulations. This adherence is made visible in the master-at-arms’ rigid body posture, immaculate attire, and constant tapping of his cane to the polished sheen of his black boots; in fact, one could argue that Claggart’s cane is a semiotic extension of the phallus. His disgust for his own carnal needs and self-sexualized body manifests itself via snarling reproaches to anyone who dares to touch him. This is exactly what happens when crew-member, Jenkins, approaches Claggart after a homoerotic ‘test of strength’ has ended between Budd and himself. Upon being grabbed by Jenkins, Claggart lashes out with his cane at him and growls, “Watch what you’re doing. Don’t you ever touch me!” The master-at-arms’ outward disgust over physical contact cannot disguise his inner, primal desire to touch and be touched. This unfulfilled, subconscious lust is externally expressed through Claggart’s constant assaults on the crewmen via his flailing cane, and thus, by logical extension, the weapon master is molesting them with his substitute phallus.
Additionally, Claggart is more than a mere case-study in homosexual repression; he is also a paradigmatic example of ‘the bitter queen.’ This bitterness materializes later in the film when Budd attempts to have a conversation with Claggart on the eve before both men will meet their demise. While Claggart glares out across the roiling waves of ocean beneath him, Budd asks him if it would be alright for him to stay topside awhile. Claggart almost enviously replies, “I suppose the handsome sailor may do many things forbidden to his messmates.” This statement is an echo of an earlier scene where Claggart purposely bumps into Budd and knocks his food rations out of his hands in order to have Jenkins clean it up; here, the master-at-arms remarks to the young seaman, “Handsomely done, lad. But then handsome is as handsome does.” However, the latter of Claggart’s two ‘handsome’ comments directed at Budd is more of a repressed homosexual desire for Billy, while the former is one of covetousness.
Regardless, the topside conversation between Claggart and Budd the evening before the two rendezvous with their fates is also important because Billy astutely observes the source of the master-at-arms’ misery: “I [Budd] think that sometimes you [Claggart] hate yourself.” Benshoff makes note of this scene as well, stating that Budd “comes close to diagnosing Claggart as an ego-dystonic homosexual…but the cause of that self-hatred is never made manifest” (p.78). Additionally, Claggart’s use of words like ‘fool’ and ‘ignorant’ in the context of this tête-à-tête to describe Billy are meant to belittle and berate the young sailor; however, Budd is blithely unaware of the master-at-arms’ slanderous, indirect jibes toward him. In fact, Billy utters a sincere line laced in double meaning when he remarks to Claggart, “I’ve never met a man like you before.” Such a statement might be alluding to Claggart’s misery or to an attraction that Budd himself is feeling for the master-at-arms. Keep in mind, Claggart hasn’t been the only one caught ogling by the camera; Budd too has been returning his stares in kind.
However, unlike Claggart’s repressed homosexual—and, therefore, an older generation of gay men who kept their closets locked up tightly—Budd is representative of a new breed of younger homosexual. He does not loathe who or what he is like Claggart because he feels no shame over it. He is ignorant to his sexual ambiguity. Budd could be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, but it doesn’t appear that he would be unfazed by any label. Billy is indicative of the ‘60s youth culture, its push to re-evaluate accepted societal norms, and, most importantly, its burgeoning sexual liberation. His youthful exhilaration exhibits a genuine affection in body contact, which is antithetical to Claggart’s repulsion of being touched. For example, Budd doesn’t mind the heated, close contact he is sharing with fellow messmate, Jenkins, during their fight below decks nor does he seem to mind that his genitals are pressed and brushing up against his opponent’s—a scene where director, Peter Ustinov, has focused the camera’s lens upon the two men’s pelvic regions—in fact, he appears to enjoy it; thereby, metamorphosing a wrestling match into a lovers’ embrace.
And much like his invisible voyeurism close to the beginning of the film, Captain Vere is an unseen queer caught between Claggart’s Scylla of self-loathing homosexual and Budd’s Charybdis of sexual confidence and fluidity. Unlike Claggart, Vere does not hate his homosexuality; however, he doesn’t embrace it like Billy does either. Instead, the good Captain gives the air that he is above both. In contemporary gay culture, Vere would be deemed a ‘sophistafag’—outwardly logical, highly enlightened, and higher than the straightest highbrow; both sex and sexual repression are below him.
Vere’s sophistafaggotry in Billy Budd is first recognizable in the scene where he materializes topside, bespectacled with book in hand. The Captain exudes a façade that implies that he is too busy reading his novel to notice his crew working diligently around him; however, this ruse is ultimately foiled. As he peers upward, Capt. Vere notices Billy carrying out his topforemanly duties high above the Avenger. Yet again, Vere believes himself to be the invisible voyeur/warrior as he catches a biblio-shaded glance at Budd’s derriere. The anatomical focus of Vere’s attention is unmistakable since, visually, his eyelining mirrors the direction of the angle of his book; furthermore, Billy’s most pronounced body part from the Captain’s perspective is the youthful sailor’s buttocks. With that said, Vere’s voyeuristic invisibility dematerializes as Budd catches the Captain checking out his ass. Billy simply responds with a smile and a wave of ‘hello’; thus, sending Vere into a stolid embarrassment and ending his rapturous few moments of shedding his guise of sophistafaggotry and letting his bookworm squirm with sexual desire.
Director, Peter Ustinov, deftly interweaves this torrid triangle of homosexual desire throughout the film and summarizes each man’s sexual identities in the Captain’s cabin where Billy is confronted by Claggart and his accusations of Budd’s mutiny, and during the trial of the young sailor for the death of the master-at-arms. Here, Claggart is the unadulterated embodiment of the bitter queen: since he cannot have Billy, the master-at-arms has taken it upon himself to make certain that no-one else will either. Like some spurned lover—or, perhaps, like some jealous lover sensing Vere’s attraction to Budd—Claggart meets with Vere in private and accuses Budd of conspiring with other crew members against the Avenger.
When Budd is brought in to confront his accuser, Claggart’s words are inundated with psychological self-projections and dialogical double meaning: “This William Budd acting so out of angry resentment against impressments…against this ship, this service…against the officers, the mates, and me. And urges them to the outrage of mutiny…I surprised him in the forechain…and both saw and heard him conspire with known malingerers…men who continually growl about unfair pay.” Obviously, Claggart is the one who is filled with bitter ‘resentment’ over his unrequited love for Budd. The master-at-arms’ choice of the words ‘mates’ and ‘urges’ suggests further jealousy. His line about surprising Budd in the ‘forechain’ could easily be interchangeable with foreskin. Claggart’s accusation that Budd is hanging around with ‘known malingerers’ growling about not getting adequately paid intimates something seedier; perhaps, a suggestion that Billy is a whore—harsh words spoken by Claggart and like a true spurned lover.
Brought about by Claggart’s soap-operatic accusations and/or sensing that Billy isn’t likely to be a chubby chaser, Captain Vere’s own concealed jealousies rear their ugly mastheads during the trial of Budd. Here, Vere chooses not to embrace Budd—and, by logical extension, Billy’s liberated sexuality—but to embrace his sophistafaggotry and quash any sexual desire he might have for the young sailor by hiding behind his esteemed logic. Regardless of his own personal feelings for Budd, the Captain doggedly pursues the topforeman’s death with lustful obsession, which is striking similar to Claggart’s obsessed outburst of mutinous accusations all in pursuit of seeing Budd hanged. Vere protests the secret court’s verdict of Budd’s innocence by boldly stating, “Which one of us here has rights? It is my duty, and I must perform it…your verdict sets him [Billy] free, and so would I wish to do…We cannot have warm hearts betraying heads which should be cool…Our consciences are private matters…but we are public men…I feel…for myself revulsion, shame, and rage.” By hiding behind the Mutiny Acts Provision Vere spares himself from the temptation of the lowly sexual act of carnal lust, while simultaneously persuades the members of the court to switch their decision from one of ‘innocent’ to that of ‘guilty.’
Both Vere and Claggart deal with their sexual demons in different ways, but both men reach the same decision: the use of their military rank to condemn Budd to death for his good looks (and the powers of temptation that they contain), his sexual freedom and ambiguity, and his inability to give them what they desire most—his sexual intimacy and affection. In the film’s final moments after Budd has been hanged, a broken-up Vere loses his sophistafag cool and remarks, “I’m only a man not fit to do the work of God or the devil,” and walks away from his duties as Captain of the Avenger to hide the tears he has shed over Budd’s hanging. In the end, the whole crew meets a similar fate as Billy’s off the Spanish Coast as the Avenger is sunk into the ocean deep by a French naval vessel. Under the lens of Queer theory, Billy Budd is ultimately a movie comparable to a women’s film period piece— a gay weepie or ‘weepenis’ if you will—and, yes, I did just go there.
Benshoff, Harry M.. "Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in the Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-Military Film." Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. pp. 71-95.
Billy Budd. DVD. Dir. Peter Ustinov. Perf. Robert Ryan, Peter Ustinov, Terence Stamp. Warner Home Video, 2007.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: the Key Concepts. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2006.