Relating Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government to Melville’s Billy Budd

SUBJECTS — Literature/U.S. & Literary Devices: theme, characterization & irony; World/Britain; Seafaring;



AGE: 14+; MPAA Rating — Not Rated;

Drama; 1962; 119 minutes; Black and White. Available from

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 lessons suggested in this Guide are designed to supplement what teachers normally present in their study of Thoreau.

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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 that 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.


Selected Awards:

1963 British Academy Film Awards Nominations: Best Film, Best British Screenplay, Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Stamp); Best Foreign Actor (Ryan);
1963 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Stamp);
1963 Directors Guild of America Nominations: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Picture (Ustinov);
1963 Writers Guild of America Nominations: Best Written American Drama (Ustinov and Bodeen)

Featured Actors:

Terence Stamp as Billy Budd – Merchant seaman;
Robert Ryan as John Claggart, Master at Arms;
Peter Ustinov as Edwin Fairfax Vere, Post Captain;
Melvyn Douglas as The Dansker, sail maker;
David McCallum as Steven Wyatt, Gunnery Officer;
Ronald Lewis as Enoch Jenkins, maintopman;
Lee Montague as Squeak, Mr. Claggart’s assistant

Director: Peter Ustinov


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: 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.


Minor. Some students may be upset when Kincaid gets lashed.


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. See the Quick Discussion Question.


Lesson Relating Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government to Melville’s Billy Budd


Notes on Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government

Thoreau’s ideas can be summarized as follows:

1. Thoreau asserts that personal principles, called “higher laws,” are more important than the laws written by the state, whether local or federal. These are moral laws, formed by upbringing and contemplation of the truths found in living.

2. There are times when an individual’s higher law may come into conflict with the law of the state. Government’s often make decisions and carry out policies that are anathema to an individual’s principles.

3. When an individual’s higher law and the law of the state come into conflict, one must follow his or her higher law. Thoreau counsels individuals not to waste their time on petty laws; he asserts that the winds of time will wear away such annoyances. Only those laws dealing with injustice deserve the full attention of the individual.

4. When an individual follows the higher law of conscience, it is imperative that he or she assume full responsibility for the consequences of breaking the state’s laws. Punishment for breaking the law cannot be dodged.

5. By accepting the consequences of refusing to obey the unjust laws of the state, an individual may be able to bring the kind of attention and discourse that can result in getting the unacceptable law changed.

Thoreau thus outlined his belief in the power of non-violent protest against unjust laws. In doing so, he has delineated a system by which an individual can refuse to obey a law that causes him or her to become an agent of the injustice perpetrated by the law itself.

Thoreau’s ideas can be seen in literature as old as Sophocles’ play, Antigone, in which a young woman refuses to obey the unjust law decreed by the king. She dies rather than submit to the state’s authority when it requires her to deny her religious and personal beliefs. The law is changed, but only after Antigone is dead. Both in Sophocles’ 400 B.C.E. tragedy and in Thoreau’s much more recent essay, there is no guarantee that an act of civil disobedience will be honored or that the person refusing to obey an unjust law will even survive the experience. Only morality can be seen as the victor.

Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience was the precursor for the developments of nonviolent mass action, which made an important force in the history of the 20th century. Mohandas Gandhi, Alice Paul (an American suffragist leader), Martin Luther King, Jr. and their followers used nonviolent protest to force changes in government and society. See Learning Guides to the following movies: “Gandhi” (Indian independence), “Iron Jawed Angels” (Alice Paul and the American suffragists), and “A Force More Powerful” (several movements for social and political change including the U.S. Civil Rights Movement).


Following Thoreau with Melville

A Brief Introduction to Herman Melville

Herman Melville, born in 1819, grew up in New York in a family with eight children. When Melville was about 13, his father died suddenly, leaving the family to face economic hardship. Melville held a wide variety of jobs but put most of his energy into writing. He taught, traveled and for a time worked on a merchant ship, a whaling vessel, and as a clerk in a store. Melville traveled frequently, spending time in places such as the Marquesa Islands and Maui. He worked on a U.S. Navy frigate that journeyed along the Western coasts of both North and South America and offered him the opportunity to practice story-telling skills among a crew eager to be entertained.

Melville wrote short stories, poetry and novels, the most famous of which, Moby Dick, was published in 1851. The novel met with mixed reviews, some seriously hostile to the long and detailed escape into the world of whaling. At the end of his life, Melville was working on Billy Budd and had not quite finished it when he died in 1891.

Although Melville garnered little respect for his literary efforts, within a few decades following his death there occurred an impressive revival of his reputation, first in England and later in the United States. Moby Dick has become a part of literary canon, and Billy Budd is considered one of the finest novellas in American literature. Both works have been made into films of exceptionally high quality; Captain Ahab and Captain Veer are commonly recognized allusions to important ideas and images.


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 onboard vessels in the Royal Navy. They were first established in 1650 and later amended in 1749 and 1757 yet remained unpopular with both the public and the 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.
  • Mutiny is action taken to overthrow or otherwise resist lawful authority. Charges of mutiny against seamen or other soldiers require evidence of conspiracy and could not be bought for a simple refusal to work. In the Articles of War used by the Royal Navy, refusal to fight as ordered could result in the death penalty. The most well-known mutiny involving the Royal Navy is the 1789 event on HMS Bounty.
  • The British Royal Navy treated its sailors poorly and in 1797, the year in which “Billy Budd” is set, there were mutinies at Spithead, the home of the fleet that protected the English Channel, and at the Nore, the Royal Navy’s main anchorage protecting London. In these mutinies, which spread fear among the officers of the Royal Navy, the companies of many ships refused to sail until their demands for relief from ill-treatment were met. Essentially the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore were strikes in which loyal sailors sought protection from abusive and incompetent officers, better pay, improved living conditions, and better working conditions. The Spithead mutiny was settled amicably with pardons for the crews, a pay raise and a promise of better on-ship conditions. The mutineers at the Nore demanded more and interfered with trade going to and from the port of London. Eventually, the mutiny fell apart and the leaders were hanged or imprisoned. Click here for a copy of the Articles of Demand by the mutineers at the Nore. Even these more radical demands were exceedingly modest by today’s standards.


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

Peter Ustinov, adapted the screenplay from the play “Billy Budd” written by Louis O. Coxe and Robert Chapman. The result is a story that contains many events not found in the novella. All of the added scenes enrich the story and fill out the characterizations of Billy, Claggart and Captain Vere; none seem out of place. In addition to the changes described above in the section on Lessons Connecting the Novella to the film, the movie contains the following additions to the novella. The subordinate officers and several of the seamen have significant roles in the film, while they are hardly mentioned in the novella. The scenes involving the test of strength with Jenkins, Jenkins’ illness, his death, Kincaid’s damning of Claggart and the resultant lashing earned by Kincaid are not in the novella. The late night conversation between Claggart and Billy and Billy’s action in preventing Kincaid from killing Claggart are added by the filmmakers. The movie’s trial scene is extended with clarifying arguments.


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 that 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 officer 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 code for responses to one another’s words. Each respondent must begin his or her point with phrases such as:

I hear what you are saying, but . . .
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 . . .

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.


Socratic Chairs

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.


Essay Assignment

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 the loss of the rights of individuals.


Should Billy Budd have been sentenced to be hanged?

Suggested Response:

Whatever the student says, take the other position. If the student says that Billy should not have been hanged, ask how, in that Navy and at that time, with all the discontent, order was to be kept without iron discipline. Extend this generally to civil society in which we must have rules or else some people will take advantage. If the student says that the Articles of War left Captain Vere no choice, ask what someone should do if the laws of society require injustice. Must you participate? Why can’t you just say “No, I personally will not contribute to injustice”?


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.

1. See Questions Suitable for Any Film

2. 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?

Suggested Response:

He does this because he knows that the warship will try to impress his best sailors into the Royal Navy.

3. 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 while Billy was innocently bidding his former ship farewell, he unknowingly described his actual situation. He was going to a ship in which he would have few rights as a man and in which his most basic right, the right to life, would 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.

4. What do we learn about Billy in his interview with the officer as he signs on to his new ship?

Suggested Response:

Billy is shown to be innocent and good-natured. He does not know his age or his place of birth. He says he was “found one morning in a silk-lined basket hanging on the knocker of a good man’s door.” The Captain is impressed by this, wondering if Billy might have a parent who is an aristocrat. Billy laughs when the officer says he is a bastard. He is eager to please and not proud. Billy signs his name with an “X”; he is uneducated.

5. What troubled Billy about the lashing he witnessed aboard the ship?

Suggested Response:

Billy asks The Dansker about the flogging and is told that this form of punishment is the only solution to any problem. Even the victim of the flogging may not know what he has done wrong; it was just his turn. Billy is disturbed by the seemingly arbitrary use of power. He says flogging goes against a man’s “being a man.”

6. Compare Claggart’s costume to the clothing worn by the other characters. How does Claggart’s costume add to characterization?

Suggested Response:

Claggart wears only black. His dress is always neat and orderly. All of this is in contrast to the members of the crew, who wear light-colored clothing that is often in disarray. Billy is shown in light-colored clothing. The officers are neatly dressed and wear both white and black. The black of Claggart’s costume identifies Claggart as evil. The precision of Claggart’s dress is an important part of his personality. He tries to project the image of being governed by the rules which he secretly schemes to violate. Billy is innocent and dressed in light colored clothing.

7. It becomes apparent that Billy has a flaw. What is it?

Suggested Response:

Billy stammers. When asked why by The Dansker, he says that sometimes he cannot find his words. This is important as a symbol in the film since Billy, in his innocence cannot forebear evil and is at a loss for words in its presence. This flaw leads to Billy’s demise.

8. When Billy leaves his post to try to help Jenkins, the man tells Billy, “For the love of God, Billy, look to yourself.” What does Jenkins mean and what literary device is being used by the screenwriter through this statement?

Suggested Response:

Jenkins is aware that Claggart wants to destroy Billy, and leaving a post during a battle will usually result in harsh punishment. The literary device being used is foreshadowing. Billy needs to protect himself against Claggart.

9. After Jenkins falls from the spar and dies, Claggart lies about how it happened. Captain Vere then asks the men, “You were his messmates, does anyone here know how this occurred?” They are silent. What does this silence tell us about the men?

Suggested Response:

This tells us how afraid the men are of Claggart and how little they trust the officers on the ship. If they had trusted Captain Vere, they would have responded, and it would have been his responsibility to make sure that Claggart didn’t punish them for responding to the Captain. In the military, even today, there is a clear demarcation between officers and enlisted personnel.

10. After Kincaid yells out to Claggart, “Damn your bloody eyes,” and is sent to the brig to await his punishment, Captain Vere orders the ship to begin firing at a French vessel that is out of range. What purpose is served by this action?

Suggested Response:

The need to attend to their duties distracts the crew from the troubles with Jenkins and Kincaid.

11. Captain Vere gives a speech after Kincaid has cursed Claggart. What do we learn from this monologue?

Suggested Response:

Even though it becomes clear that Claggart was responsible for Jenkins’ death, Captain Vere must have order on his ship. He asserts his authority and threatens the men with “coin you know of” should they assert any rebellious spirit. We learn that Captain Vere sees the ship’s crew not as men but as part of the machinery of war. He says he will mold the men “into a weapon.” He is using fear to control the men.

12. When Claggart and Captain Vere discuss the question of how many lashes Kincaid should be given for cursing an officer, Claggart makes the point that the law must be served, or those in authority must give up the right of service. How does this argument relate to the central question posed by this story? What are the arguments for this proposition?

Suggested Response:

One theme of the story is that injustice results when the law is mechanically applied without a consideration of what is right in the circumstances. But there are strong arguments that go the other way and Claggart’s position states one of them. The arguments for Claggart’s position are that society needs order and that to get that order the law must be obeyed. People need to be able to rely on the law and the fact that the law will be enforced. This is especially true in a military unit involved in hostilities.

13. When Claggart and Captain Vere discuss the question of how many lashes Kincaid is to be given for cursing an officer, the Captain states that “behind every peacemaker is the gun, the jail, the gallows” and that “even the man who wields the whip cannot defy the code we must obey.” How does this statement relate to later events in the story?

Suggested Response:

Claggart, who is the man who, figuratively wields the whip, tries to defy the law by falsely accusing Billy of mutiny.

14. When Lt. Seymour questions Captain Vere about Claggart, the Captain says that he will give Claggart his head and let the law consume him. What point is being made here?

Suggested Response:

Captain Vere thoroughly trusts the power of law to deal with men as evil as Claggart. The Captain is so convinced of his point that he tells Seymour to learn the lesson well because one day he may be captain of the ship, thus foreshadowing his own demise.

15. On deck at night, Billy and Claggart talk. What does Billy say that threatens Claggart? What about Billy’s statement does Claggart find threatening?

Suggested Response:

Billy offers friendship against the obvious fact of Claggart’s loneliness. Billy does not understand the depth of Claggart’s evil, but he instinctively feels Claggart’s loneliness and, being a friendly soul, would like to help assuage it. Claggart says, “You would charm me, too?” and although he is tempted by Billy’s offer of friendship, Claggart keeps his heart closed. Claggart knows that his evil, will be threatened if he receives true friendship from someone who is good. Claggart is afraid of Billy Budd.

16. Billy prevents Kincaid from murdering Claggart. What is the irony in this incident?

Suggested Response:

Claggart follows this event by reporting that he caught Billy and others plotting a mutiny. Thus, Billy’s action in saving Claggart is used by Claggart to try to kill Billy. Billy would have been alive if he had looked the other way and allowed Kincaid to kill Claggart.

17. What can the audience read on Claggart’s face as he dies?

Suggested Response:

Claggart’s smile makes it clear that he feels that his evil is the victor in the battle with innocence; he is willing to be hurt to see innocence destroyed. Billy’s violence keeps Claggart’s world view intact, and that gratifies him. Claggart knows that Billy will be harshly punished for striking an officer.

18. In conversation with Lt. Seymour, Captain Vere makes an important point about what happens to justice when a military unit must prepare for battle. Is his point valid?

Suggested Response:

Captain Vere says that battle makes a mockery of justice and that justice and must be quick and expedient. This shows that Captain Vere is more concerned with the fate of his ship in the upcoming battles than with the issue of justice for Billy. Student opinions on the validity of this point will vary.

19. When The Dansker is questioned in Captain Vere’s quarters, he makes a point about what fear in the face of authority does to people. What does he say?

Suggested Response:

The Dansker says that he is in part to blame for what happened between Billy and Claggart because he was afraid of Claggart and did nothing about the injustices he saw. This implies that we are culpable when we do not speak out in defense of others. Edmund Burke, a British statesman and philosopher, said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

20. At the court-martial, name some of the arguments that are brought up in defense of Billy. Are the points valid?

Suggested Response:

One officer says that Billy is like a cripple because of his inability to speak and defend himself. He says that they cannot condemn a man for his handicap. Another officer says that to condemn Billy is to condone the lies that Claggart told and to make a mockery of self-defense. Another states that Billy was justified in killing Claggart, after the man made a false charge of perjury against Billy. Student opinions on the validity of the points will vary.

21. What arguments does Captain Vere use to convince the jury of officers to condemn Billy?

Suggested Response:

Captain Vere says that although condemning Billy to death may go against the men’s sense of right and wrong, conscience is a private matter and the officers are public men. He insists that they must follow the law and do their duty or else give up their posts. When the officers on the jury complain about the injustice to Billy, Captain Vere tells them that they do not deal with justice, but with the law, which is very clear about the punishment for striking a superior officer. Captain Vere says that he, too, would prefer to save Billy and challenges the court-martial jury to find a way, consistent with their duties, to spare him. They cannot. Billy is to be hanged.

22. What do we learn about innocence from the manner in which Billy hears the news that he is to die and from his last words before his hanging?

Suggested Response:

Innocence does not attribute blame. When Captain Vere tells Billy to use his hatred to conquer his fear, Billy says he does not feel fear. Billy states that he did his duty and Captain Vere is doing his. As he is about to be hanged, Billy calls out “God bless Captain Vere.” He forgives the Captain. Billy stays true to his innocence up to his death.

23. When Billy is awakened on the morning of his day to die, he is curled in bed in a child-like pose. He puts on a fancy pair of shoes, polished and new; he appears to be going to his death as if he were going to church. Billy looks in the eyes of every officer who had condemned him. He feels no regret, shame, or anger. What does this show about Billy Budd?

Suggested Response:

There may be several ways to express this, but the strongest is that these images and actions show that Billy is an innocent.



See the last two questions in the section on Class Discussions in Preparation for An Essay Assignment and Other Discussion Questions numbered 3, 5, 12, 13, 14, 18, 20 & 21.


See the Other Discussion Questions numbered 10 – 12.

1. 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.

2. What does Captain Vere do after Billy is hanged? Is that good leadership?

Suggested Response:

The Captain abdicates his role as leader. This does not show good leadership.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(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)

See Other Discussion Questions numbered 3, 5, 12, 13, 14, 18, 20 & 21.


The product of the following assignments can be essays or presentations to the class. Encourage students to us 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.

3. Students can research some of the famous cases of civil disobedience in American or world history. Issues may include cases of non-violent resistance led by Martin Luther King, Alice Paul, or Mahatma Gandhi.

4. Students can analyze the artistic merit of the film.

5. Students can look for the differences between the film and the novella arriving at a conclusion about which is superior in terms of its presentation of the issues and its appeal to students today.

6. Students can defend their opinion of military justice, the death penalty, the draft or on any one of the ancillary issues brought up in the film.

Other projects are set out below:

  • Students can write personal narratives or creative fiction, such as a short story, about an incident of civil disobedience, whether or not it was successful in changing an unjust law.
  • Students can write a retelling of the story of Billy Budd in a modern setting with a realistic set of circumstances. Their new story must present the conflict between law and justice in a situation in which one of the characters embodies innocence and another embodies evil.
  • Students can organize a campaign on an issue of importance at their high school that they feel involves administrative adherence to an unjust law or rule. This campaign can be on paper or through action.

See also Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



The websites which may be linked in the Guide.

Written by James Frieden and Mary RedClay. This Learning Guide last updated June 1, 2013.

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