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SUBJECTS — Literature/U.S. & Literary Devices: theme, characterization & irony; World/Britain; Seafaring;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Justice; Leadership;
ETHICAL EMPHASIS: — Fairness.
Age: 14+; MPAA Rating — Not Rated; Drama; 1962; 119 minutes; Black and White; Available from Amazon.com.
This sample is just a taste of the Learning Guide to Billy Budd. At TeachWithMovies.com, $11.99 per year provides access to 350 Learning Guides and lesson plans covering many topics in the K-12 curriculum. Join TWM
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Both Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau are essential to the study of American literature. Looking at Melville's Billy Budd in relation to Thoreau's essay "Resistance to Civil Government," will help students make connections between various parts of the American literature curriculum and enhance their appreciation for both works. Captain Vere and each member of the court martial jury had the opportunity to do justice by following conscience rather than strictly following the Articles of War. Yet, they did not take that path. This Learning Guide suggests that the lesson culminate in an essay assignment requiring students to demonstrate an understanding of the concept of civil disobedience described in Thoreau's essay and the conflict between law and justice explored in Billy Budd.
The complete Learning Guide also contains a Movie Questionnaire to keep students on task as they watch the film, a transcript of parts of the court martial, additional discussion questions, additional assignments, and a comparison of the film and the novella.
The lessons suggested in this Guide are designed to supplement what teachers normally present in their study of Thoreau.
Description of the Movie:
This film is a brilliant adaptation of Herman Melville's novella about a young man who is impressed from a merchant ship to a Royal Navy frigate. The story is set in 1797, during a war between royalist Britain and revolutionary France. The American and French revolutions have cast aside old concepts of authority and recent mutinies in the Royal Navy threaten hopes for military victory as well as the lives of the officers aboard ship.
Billy Budd is innocent, gentle, and friendly. He is pitted against the ship's Master at Arms, Claggart, who is evil, cruel, and determined to destroy Billy. When Claggart falsely accuses Billy of planning a mutiny, Billy responds with a blow to Claggart's head, which results in the death of the Master at Arms. Adhering to the Articles of War, a set of harsh rules designed to assure order aboard ship, the ship's captain has Billy tried, convicted, and hanged for the crime. The trial offers insight into the conflict between justice and law, responsibility to duty verses adherence to a personal moral code, and the struggle between good and evil.
Benefits of the Movie:
For classes in English Language Arts: The film is an excellent tool to access Herman Melville's novella. The book, numbering fewer than 100 pages, is dense and difficult for modern readers. Still, it is well worth the struggle necessary to navigate complicated sentences and to process obsolete and esoteric vocabulary. The themes are as important today as ever they were; the characters are clear and extant in modern society.
For social studies classes: The movie provides an accurate and vivid account of the impressment of seamen by the Royal Navy, life on warships at the end of the 18th century, and tensions in British society caused by the revolutionary spirit of the age. Situations in which the law conflicts with justice and when the obligations of duty conflict with a citizen's personal moral code are important issues for civics classes.
Media literacy Lessons in Any Class: Since "Billy Budd" is filmed in black and white, students can become better critics of film by learning to appreciate the use of contrasting shades of light, out of which comes much of the film's artistic merit. For example, clothing worn, overhead settings, use of ropes, and angles and patterns of light all cause the viewers to focus on what the director, Peter Ustinov, intends to be the most important matter in the film: the contrast between the beauty of innocence and the ugliness of evil.
Possible Problems: None.
Watch the film with your child and start a debate about whether the officers were right to condemn Billy or whether Billy should have been let go or given a lesser punishment. At least for a while, play the devil's advocate and take the opposite position to that taken by your child.
Lesson Relating Thoreau's Resistance to Civil Government to Melville's Billy Budd
Notes on Thoreau's Resistance to Civil Government
The complete Learning Guide contains a short summary of the main points made in Thoreau's essay and a brief comment bracketing Thoreau's thoughts on civil disobedience between Sophocles and its use to change the social and political landscape of the 20th century by movements of nonviolent mass action led by people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Alice Paul (an American suffragist), and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Following Thoreau with Melville
A Brief Introduction to Herman Melville
The complete Learning Guide contains a short description of Melville's literary career.
Terms, Historical Figures and Concepts
That Will Help Students Understand Billy Budd
The following terms, historical figures and concepts will help students understand the story. This information can be presented by direct instruction or through research performed by students. The research can be done by several students together with each group making a presentation to the class.
- The French Revolution, 1787 - 1799, sparked a series of wars between the revolutionary government of France and the royalist powers of Europe, including England. Revolutions of the 18th century, in particular those of the United States and France, championed the rights of man as opposed to the power of kings and the privileges of aristocrats.
- The Articles of War established order on-board vessels of the Royal Navy. They were first established in 1650 and later amended in 1749 and 1757. They were unpopular with the public and with seamen throughout their reign. The first of 36 articles required the ship's officers to adhere to the call to worship of the Church of England. Article 29 assigned the death penalty for certain sex acts aboard ship. Article 13 allowed the use of the death penalty should sailors hold back in the face of the enemy.
Twenty-one articles provided the death penalty for such offenses as striking or showing contempt for a superior officer, murder, mutinous conspiracy, or withholding knowledge of a mutinous plan. Flogging was a common punishment for even minor infractions.
- Impressment was an 18th and 19th century system to procure seamen for the Royal Navy. Young men were routinely kidnapped, or impressed, from shore or from merchant ships to serve on a vessel of war. Conscription, devised during the French Revolution, is another form of forced military service, much like the draft in modern times.
The complete Learning Guide contains some additional facts that will be helpful to students in understanding "Billy Budd".
Lessons Connecting the Novella to the Film:
Students should read the novella after seeing the film so that they will be able to hold the images and events in their minds as they navigate the difficult language used by Melville. For students who will not be required to read the novella, it is suggested that some chapters be assigned so that they can experience Melville's writing and note the differences between the film and the novella. The following chapters are suggested:
Chapter XXII of Melville's novella presents the trial of Billy Budd which is very close in style and import to that shown in the film; it is well worth having the class read, led by the teacher, for comparison between the film and the written work. The arguments in favor of the state over the individual are clear yet the value of the individual above the state is also forcefully made.
Chapters XXIX and XXX, barely three pages combined, should also be read by students. Melville's narrator tells us that the story ends with Billy's hanging and then provides an interesting denouement which differs from the denouement shown in the film. The film ends with the crew, who for a moment had seemed ready to revolt in response to Billy's hanging, rushing to battle stations to repel a French assault. Captain Vere resigns his position and refuses to serve another moment as captain. In Chapter XXIX of the novella, after Billy is hanged, the crew returns to ordinary work detail. The narrative informs the reader that Captain Vere is injured in another engagement and dies. His last words were, "Billy Budd, Billy Budd." Chapter XXX details information reported about Billy's death in a seamen's newsletter in which authority is said to have defeated the threat of mutiny aboard Captain Vere's ship. In the news report, Claggart is presented as a fine officer while Billy is portrayed as a mutinous rebel. The propaganda is not unlike the dissembling that sometimes occurs in the press today. This chapter is slightly over one page long and is worth reading to students so they can hear how the system works in support of injustice.
Additional Differences Between Novella and Movie
The complete Learning Guide contains a description of a few additional differences between the film and the book.
Class Discussions in Preparation for An Essay Assignment
Class discussion can provide much of the scaffolding that students will need to write an essay on the topic of the conflict between law and justice in the act of hanging Billy. They should decide whether or not the principles of civil disobedience, as outlined by Henry David Thoreau, could have been applied during the trial in order to save Billy's life. They need to consider whether any one man may have been able to argue that the law was the problem rather than the action taken by Billy in self-defense.
In order to prepare for this essay, students should engage in informal debates taking positions for and against several propositions. Consider the following:
- In a democratic society, an individual has no right to break a law with which he or she disagrees. A citizen's duty is to work to change those laws with which the individual disagrees while obeying duly enacted laws.
- Society has no right to require an individual to take an action which is against the conscience of that individual.
- The principles of civil disobedience cannot be applied in the military. In Billy's case, since merely striking a superior office was a capital offense, the court martial jury had no option except to hang him.
- Captain Vere and the court martial jury should have applied the principles of civil disobedience to the Articles of War in Billy's case and let him go.
Here are two possible methods for organizing the informal debate.
The Great Divide
Separate the class into two groups representing sides taken on a particular issue. Students in support of the point should sit together facing those opposed to the point. Students should use the rules of Accountable Talk to argue their positions. Accountable Talk requires that students listen carefully and adhere to a code for responses to one anothers' words. Each respondent must begin his or her point with phrases such as:
I hear what you are saying, but . . .
Students may not resort to name calling or any other insults and must back up their points with reference to the work being discussed. When students hear points that cause them to change their minds, they must get up and take a seat on the other side. Often, an entire class will become convinced of one position and all seats will be moved to one side of the room. Pro-con T-Chart organizers or any other form of note taking can be beneficial so that students can refer to points they felt were important when it comes time to write their essays.
Your point is good; however, I want to say . . .
I'm unclear about what you mean . . .
Granted your point has validity; however you must consider . . .
I understand what you are saying; however the facts are . . .
Place a number of chairs at the front of the room and select appropriate students to fill them. These students will serve as a panel to discuss the issue that must be resolved or at least clarified so that the students can write their essays. Students remaining in their desks should take notes using a graphic organizer, such as a pro-con T-Chart, and can ask questions either during or at the end of the panel's discussion. Sometimes students may want to relinquish a chair to a member of the audience in order to further the point he or she is making. Vary the rules to fit the goals of the discussion but keep to the rules of Accountable Talk.
Students can be asked to complete any of the following assignments following the rubric for essays customarily used in the class:
- A formal persuasive essay seeking to convince the reader of any of the propositions or of the opposite of any proposition suggested for use in the class activities;
- A formal analytical essay illustrating the dominant theme of Billy Budd;
- A letter of appeal addressed to the officers on the court martial jury arguing that Billy's action was excused in some way; and
- An opinion piece on whether war, such as the War on Terror now being waged by the U.S. government, justifies loss of the rights of individuals.
Other Discussion Questions on "Billy Budd", the Movie
The four questions in the section on Class Discussions in Preparation for the Essay Assignment relate to the themes of the story. For classes that are not going to write the essay described in the first part of this Guide, those are probably the most important questions for class discussion. Other questions that relate to theme are 3, 5, 12 - 14, 18, 20 & 21.
See Standard Questions Suitable for Any Film (available to subscribers only.)
- The captain of the merchant ship Rights of Man tries to outrun the warship, pretends he cannot hear the orders coming from the warship, and sends Billy aloft in an effort to hide him. What are his reasons for doing this? Billy Budd; Suggested Response: He does this because he knows that the warship will try to impress his best sailors into the Royal Navy.
- As Billy is being rowed from the merchant ship to the man of war, he calls out, "Goodbye, old Rights of Man." The naval officer in the row boat responds with anger and asks Billy what he means by this. Billy says that he means nothing. He is just saying goodbye. What irony is there in Billy's salute to the merchant vessel as he is rowed toward The Avenger? What type of irony is this? Suggested Response: The irony lies in the fact that when Billy is innocently bidding his former ship farewell, he unknowingly describes his actual situation. He is going to a ship in which he will have few rights as a man and in which his most basic right, the right to life, will be taken away. This is an example of dramatic irony because most of the audience knows something of what happens to Billy aboard the Royal Navy ship. This is also foreshadowing.
The complete Learning Guide contains many additional questions relating to the movie.
Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:
The complete Learning Guide contains links to discussion questions that relate to the concept of justice.
The complete Learning Guide contains links to discussion questions that relate to leadership.
Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
- What was the primary mistake in leadership that Captain Vere made? Suggested Response: The Captain trusted in the law to deal with men like Claggart. He didn't recognize the depth of Claggart's evil and didn't take steps to deal with that evil before it resulted in a situation in which he had to hang one of his crew.
TWM's Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues
(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don't take advantage of others; Don't blame others carelessly)
The complete Learning Guide contains links to discussion questions that relate to the concept of fairness.
Additional Assignments, Projects and Activities
The product of the following assignments can be essays or presentations to the class. Encourage students to use a variety of different creative ways present their materials, such as film clips or performances. The projects can be assigned to individual students or to groups of students.
1. Students interested in military history can research the Articles of War used by the British and compare them to modern day rules of warfare on land, sea, or air. This can be a timely issue.
2. Students can research the many incidents of rule-breaking by teenagers in their efforts to effect change in what they felt to be violations of their civil rights in school. Several such cases have made their way to the Supreme Court including issues such as dress codes, political protests, religious practices, and corporal punishment. Two issues of Upfront Magazine, published biweekly for high school students by The New York Times, are especially helpful for this assignment. See the September 3 and l7 issues of 2007.
The complete Learning Guide contains additional projects and activities relating to the film.
Bibliography: The websites which may be linked in the Guide.
Last updated October 6, 2011. Adapted for use as a sample on May 17, 2009.