In 12th century England, King Henry II is in need of an able man to fill the role of Archbishop of Canterbury. He requires someone who will support his own vision of the church being subordinate to the state. He makes the proposal to his long time friend and Lord Chancellor, Thomas Becket, that Thomas become the new Archbishop. Thomas reluctantly agrees, but finds his new role changing him in important ways. He undergoes a spiritual transformation and comes to fiercely identify with the church’s position in its disputes with the crown. The two friends are torn apart due to their now divergent allegiances, which centre around the refusal of Thomas to allow the crown jurisdiction over disciplining the English clergy, amongst other matters. Due to his refusal to capitulate on this important issue, Thomas is driven into exile in France by trumped up charges issued by the crown. Henry begs him to return, but regrets his action when it becomes apparent that the intransigent Archbishop has become a hero to the English people in his absence. In a fit of anger, Henry wishes his men would rid him of “this troublesome priest” and the murder in the cathedral of December 29, 1170 is the tragic result.
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Becket won an OSCAR for Best Adapted Screenplay
“Becket” was one of the most prestigious productions of 1964. It was produced by Hal B. Wallis, directed by British theatre veteran Peter Glenville and starred two of the most impressive acting talents of the day, Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. Further, it was cast throughout with the cream of British stage talent available at the time, including the acting mentors of the two leads - John Gielgud, who plays France’s King Louis VII, who had given Richard Burton his break on the London stage; as well as Donald Wolfit, a noted Shakespearean actor who plays Bishop Folliot, and had Peter O’Toole as a student and protégé. What’s more, it was based on a revered stage play written by Jean Anouilh which had starred Laurence Olivier as Becket and Anthony Quinn as Henry II, but who were both now considered too old to be cast in the film version.
The film shares many of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of this kind of production. It is impressively staged and photographed. It provides an outstanding vehicle for two charismatic actors and it dramatizes an extraordinary true historical friendship and event - the infamous murder in the cathedral - that is compelling to this day. Nonetheless, it suffers somewhat from too slow and stately pacing. In an era when, for instance, the Showtime series “The Tudors” offers a quickly paced and decidedly more irreverent treatment of relations between church and state, “Becket” seems a bit staid by comparison.
Nonetheless, the central relationship of this story is full of dramatic possibilities which are well represented here.
Despite the title of the film and play, it is the character of King Henry II who predominates. It is his emotional crises which drive the story forward, rather than the more abstract concern with honour to which his friend and eventual nemesis, Becket, is continually referring. Perhaps Anouilh fell into the trap of revering his central figure, Thomas Becket, saint and martyr, too much, and thus identified more with the willful and bawdy king. Whatever the case, Peter O’Toole runs with the opportunity he is given here. His Henry II is a charming, yet brutal and ruthless man, capable of being conniving and sly while still revealing a believable vulnerability, as well as being genuinely likable. Henry is emotionally demanding and constantly needs reassurance of Becket’s love for him. It is this aspect of Anouilh’s play, and Edward Anhalt’s adaptation of it, that has led to a homoerotic interpretation of the relationship between Henry and Becket, at least as it is presented here. Indeed, Henry does seem more like a spurned lover at times, than a king furious that his prerogatives are being usurped. The scene leading up to his notorious incitement of his knights - “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” - is more a frantic outburst over lost love rather than a power play by a medieval king.
Whatever emotional investment Henry has in the friendship between he and Becket, Thomas never seems to share it and it is around this conflict that great events unfold. Richard Burton is very convincing in the first half of the film when he plays Becket as a quietly Machiavellian courtier who constantly calculates the advantage of the moment for himself and for his king. Becket is, for a long time, a man who will put up with all of his king’s demands, as well as the personal humiliations meted out to him (Henry steals a woman Becket loves) so long as he can continue in the power games he prizes so highly. The turning point is reached when Becket finds himself Archbishop of Canterbury and undergoes a powerful internal transformation to become a man of God. The problem for the film is that Anouilh never fully explored this major spiritual conversion. The core of it seems to reside mainly in Becket’s continual invoking of the ideal of honour. Presumably Becket finds his honour in his newfound adherence to the Church, but after all that has led to this moment, we’re never really convinced. The other attempt at dramatizing his spiritual transformation is made by relying on the outward ceremony and ritual of the medieval Church. Peter Glenville is very good at staging these ancient rites and it works visually, but again is not enough to explain why Becket would risk everything to confront the king he has so recently, and unquestioningly, served. Burton suffers in the second half of the film as he really has nowhere to go emotionally or psychologically and the incessant talk of honour doesn’t give him much to express.
It’s worth noting there is one major historical inaccuracy in the film that all concerned were aware of, but because Jean Anouilh had hung so much dramatic, and political importance on it, the detail was never changed. In the play and the film, Thomas Becket is supposed to be a product of the oppressed Saxon peasantry. In fact, he was a Norman and of good birth.
“Becket” is still a thoughtful telling of an important and interesting historic relationship. Despite its flaws, it remains a rewarding film experience.