Becket (1964)


(director: Peter Glenville; screenwriters: Edward Anhalt/from the play by Jean Anouilh; cinematographer: Geoffrey Unsworth; editor: Anne V. Coates; music: Laurence Rosenthal; cast: Richard Burton (Thomas Becket), Peter O’Toole (King Henry II), John Gielgud (King Louis VII of France), Donald Wolfit (Gilbert Folliot, Bishop of London), Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), David Weston (Brother John), Martita Hunt (Queen Matilda), Pamela Brown (Queen Eleanor), Paolo Stoppa (Pope Alexander III), Gino Cervi (Cardinal Zambelli), Percy Herbert (Baron), Niall MacGinnis (Baron), Christopher Rhodes (Baron), Peter Jeffrey (Baron), Michael Miller (Baron, Peter Prowse (Baron), Inigo Jackson (Robert de Beaumont, Duke of Leicester), Sian Phillips (Gwendolen), Veronique Vendell (French Girl); Runtime: 148; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hal Wallis; Paramount Pictures; 1964-UK)

“The respectable but boring film is nevertheless worth watching for the robust performances of Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on the Tony-winning play by the Frenchman Jean Anouilh and written by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Edward Anhalt. The noted British stage director Peter Glenville (“The Prisoner”/”Me and the Colonel”), the director of the play, helms this historical epic and tries to take it away from its stagy feel by its authentic location shots. Overlong, lacking action and given to tedious dialogues, the respectable but boring film is nevertheless worth watching for the robust performances of Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, just after his auspicious film debut in Lawrence of Arabia.

O’Toole is at his hammy best as he plays Henry II, the 12th-century king of England who was descended from the Norman conquerors. The womanizing married king is accompanied in his romantic adventures by the boisterous Saxon, Thomas à Becket (Burton), who knows his place and remains subservient and loyal to his superior at all times. This is true when they both fall for the same woman, Gwendolen (Siân Phillips, O’Toole’s real-life wife at the time), and she becomes Becket’s woman. When Henry’s authority is challenged by the Catholic Church (they claim that God’s law is above a monarch’s), Henry appoints Becket as Lord Chancellor of England, where he fights the church on Henry’s behalf. To repay the favor, Henry takes away Gwendolen from Becket and he yields without a fight or an expression of emotion. Gwendolen answers back by committing suicide. Henry, to gain political favor over the church, appoints Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury when the current archbishop dies. But Becket takes his new job with the church in the same spirit he served the king and acts to serve only the church, as he undergoes a spiritual transformation. This greatly upsets the king and a rift in their relationship occurs. Things come to a head when Henry’s zealous barons assassinate the meddlesome Becket at the king’s request. The brutal murder takes place in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Wracked with guilt, Henry allows himself to be flogged by Saxon monks and then openly proclaims Becket a saint.

O’Toole plays his role in a campy manner which might not please all tastes, as he shows a homoerotic devotion to Becket (which is not the Henry in the history books). Also, the power trip which influenced both characters makes both characters unlikable–Becket comes across as a cold-hearted obstinate hypocritical prig, while Henry comes across as a ruthless ruler who is self-absorbed and doesn’t care about his subjects. But the issue of separation of church and state fares much better, as that political problem still resonates in today’s modern world and how it’s dealt with here holds our attention.

The fine supporting cast includes: John Gielgud as a prissy king of France, Pamela Brown as the king’s put upon wife, Paolo Stoppa as the shrewd pope and Donald Wolfit as the conniving bishop who is Becket’s enemy.

“Becket” was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including best picture.