Becket: The Bishop Who Found God



becketWhen I told a friend recently that I had just seen Becket and that Richard Burton plays the Archbishop of Canterbury, he quickly lost interest. Witnessing a showdown between the King and the Primate of England sounded too dull for his taste… and he has good company. Becket has its detractors, even at the time of its release. The critic John Simon labeled it “handsome, respectable and boring”. Alec Guinness allegedly declined the part of the Archbishop because he simply didn’t believe in Becket’s story as a film. He was wrong, though. This is a powerful tale about male friendship destroyed by faith and principles.

In the late 1100s, King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) visits the tomb of his dear friend Thomas Becket, remembering how close they once were. We are subsequently transported back in time to the halcyon days when the young, rambunctious king amused himself with wine and women, always aided by Becket (Burton) who struck everyone else at court as an unlikely ally. After all, he was a Saxon and his people were defeated by the invading Normans in 1066; as a member of an oppressed race, he should hate Henry. But Becket doesn’t care; uninterested in principles, he’s simply trying to survive and teach the king a few lessons about life. At odds with the Archbishop of Canterbury over the matter of taxation, Henry is relieved one day to hear that the elderly church leader has passed away and decides to appoint Becket as the next Archbishop. Startled, the Saxon refuses at first, but eventually agrees. However, the king is not prepared for Becket to challenge him on a key issue…

Plenty to chew on
It didn’t take long for playwright Jean Anouilh to decide that the story about Thomas Becket and the dramatic stand-off that led to his murder in 1170 was worth a play, but he never bothered much with the historical facts. The filmmakers went even further, completely ignoring the true aspects of Becket’s disagreement with Henry and inventing a fictional, simplified crisis. Still, as an independent work of art, Becket provides plenty to chew on for both the audience and the cast. Becket and Henry are portrayed as the closest of friends (and probably more) who are driven apart mostly because of the former’s Christian awakening. In many respects, Becket is an emotionally dead human being who finally finds a calling, something worth standing up for. Unfortunately, that puts him at odds with his best friend, who in O’Toole’s complex portrayal shows almost manic traits in his quest to defend his royal title (and entitlements) and yet somehow retain his friendship with Becket. Burton’s effort is naturally more low-key due to the Saxon’s initially lackadaisical attitude toward life in general, but his performance becomes more compassionate once Becket finds God. It is no coincidence that Henry begins to look more and more like Herod to Becket’s Christ. John Gielgud also has an amusing smaller role as the French King Louis VII who doesn’t mind irritating his English counterpart by helping the Archbishop.

The film is directed by a man who did a lot of theater (including this story on stage), but Peter Glenville is comfortable behind the camera. He knows when to focus on the actors and allow them to dominate an intimate, intense dialogue- or monologue-driven scene, and when to employ the vast knowledge of his professional team in order to create a sweeping blockbuster feel to several scenes; Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography and John Bryan’s art direction are particularly impressive.

Becket 1964-U.S. 148 min. Color. Widecreen. Produced by Hal B. Wallis. Directed by Peter Glenville. Screenplay: Edward Anhalt. Play: Jean Anouilh. Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Music: Laurence Rosenthal. Art Direction: John Bryan. Costume Design: Margaret Furse. Cast: Richard Burton (Thomas Becket), Peter O’Toole (Henry II), John Gielgud (Louis VII), Donald Wolfit, Martita Hunt, Pamela Brown.

Trivia: O’Toole played Henry II again in The Lion in Winter (1968).

Oscar: Best Adapted Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Actor (O’Toole).

Quote: “The King of England and his Ambassadors can drown themselves in what they are impertinent enough to call their English channel.” (Gielgud)

Last word: “[The part of Henry II] chose me. The parts choose me. I cannot explain how I know a part is mine any more than a cat knows a mouse is his. It provokes an emotional response and I know it’s mine.” (O’Toole, TCM)

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