The old sailor, Captain Vira, is haunted by the memory of how once he was sent a test, which he did not pass.
Picture the first. On board the British battleship Fearless. 1797, the era of the French Revolutionary Wars.
Sailors scour the deck and set sail. One of them, a novice, accidentally collides with the Boatswain, and then slips on the deck. The boatswain tells him to arrange a whipping. The command returned is sent to the forced recruitment of people from the merchant vessel “Human Rights”. They brought with them three. Kaptenarmus John Cleggart polls the new sailors. Of all of them, only the last makes a good impression on the officers, Billy Budd: he is an experienced sailor and is eager to serve on the ship; his only drawback is that he stutters sometimes. Billy enthusiastically welcomes the beginning of a new life and publicly says goodbye to the "Human Rights". The officers take this farewell as a rebellious slogan, feel threatened by Billy and ordered to clear the deck.
Watching Billy is entrusted to Claggart, who is in charge of discipline on the ship. Cleggart tells one of his subordinates, the Rat, to observe Billy and make him in trouble.
Novice lead with whipping. He is beaten so that he cannot walk by himself. New recruits are terrified, and long-time members of the team, Donald and Dane, tell them that they are beating everyone. Newcomers are advised to beware of Claggart - and all the sailors admire Captain Wire. Upon learning that Vir is a good man, Billy vows to die for the captain.
The second picture. One week later. Cabin captain Vira.
Evening. Vir is alone in his cabin, he reads, then invites two officers to his glass of wine. They discuss the recent rebellions of the sailors in Spithead and Nora. The officers think that Billy has a bad influence on the team, but Vir dispel their fears. The lieutenant reports that the ship entered the enemy waters.
The third picture. Sailor's Kubrick, the same evening.
Free from the watch sailors sing songs. Billy goes behind his bag and sees the Rat rummaging through his stuff. They fight. Rat has a knife, but Billy takes it away. Kleggart comes, arrests Rat and praises Billy. The sailors go to bed. Cleggart is determined to destroy Billy. He sends Novice to persuade Billy to take part in the rebellion.
A newcomer comes to Billy, who sleeps and sees in a dream that he is drowning. Waking up and hearing the Beginner's provocations, Billy begins to stutter with indignation. Rookie runs away. The Dane has no doubt that Cleggart is behind everything, but Billy does not believe him.
Picture the first. A few days later.
The ship goes in the fog. Cleggart wants to report to Viru that there is a rebel among the sailors, but a French vessel is noticed nearby. The team is summoned to the posts, but the battle does not have time to start: the wind is not enough, the fog returns, and the French cannot catch up.
Cleggart returns to Viru and accuses Billy of preparing a mutiny. Vere does not believe him and orders both to appear in the captain's cabin.
The second picture. Captain Vira's cabin, a few minutes later.
Billy thinks the captain called him to report a promotion. Instead, he has to hear from Claggart a false accusation of rebellion. Stuttering does not let Billy say a word, so he strikes Claggart in the head. He dies. Vir in disarray. He locks Billy in the adjoining room and calls the officers to the court martial. The punishment for a sailor who raised his hand to an officer is death. Billy is judged on the spot. The death sentence for him seems unfair to the tribunal, and the officers are trying to ask Vir for advice, but he is washing his hands. There is no choice, and Billy is sentenced to be hanged. The execution must take place in the morning. Vere realizes that he could save Billy's life. He goes to inform Billy about the sentence.
The third picture. Morning, just before dawn.
Billy awaits execution. Dane brings him food and grog.
The fourth picture. Deck, four in the morning.
The team gathers on deck to attend the penalty. Everyone picks up Billy's last words: “God bless you, Star Vir!” - but when the sentence is carried out, the sailors are overwhelmed with outrage and discontent. The officers command them to disperse, and the habit makes them obey. The insurgency goes out without starting.
We see Vira again as an old man. He mourns that he has failed both Billy and himself: he could have saved an innocent. But Billy’s last words sound like blessing and redemption to him.