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As the story opens, King Henry II, who ruled England from 1154 to 1189 has entered Canterbury Cathedral to do penance at the tomb of his former friend, Thomas Becket. Bare to the waist, the king kneels to receive a flogging from Saxon monks. He begins to reminisce, recalling at first the carefree, promiscuous adventures with Becket, then his favorite drinking and wenching companion. A violently emotional drama that probes the changing relationship between two young men - between two close friends bound together by similar pride of flesh and spirit who become deadly enemies as they pursue their separate destinies . . . that of king . . . and saint. Written by
Although the film depicts Becket as a Saxon, he was actually a Norman like King Henry II. Becket is obviously a French-sounding Norman name, not a Germanic-sounding Saxon name. See more »
Contrary to one of the film's central plot lines, Thomas Becket was a Norman (Thomas Bequet), not a Saxon. Jean Anouilh admitted he discovered this after having finished his play, having based it on the outdated 1825 work "The History of the Conquest of England by the Normans", by Augustin Thierry; but he decided that it made a better story the way he had written it. See more »
King Henry II:
Well, Thomas Becket. Are you satisfied? Here I am, stripped, kneeling at your tomb, while those treacherous Saxon monks of yours are getting ready to thrash me. Me - with my delicate skin. I bet you'd never have done the same for me. But - I suppose I have to do this penance and make my peace with you. Hmm. What a strange end to our story. How cold it was when we last met - on the shores of France. Funny, it's nearly always been cold - except at the beginning, when we were friends....
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King Henry II: "Becket is the only intelligent man in my kingdom, and he's against me!"
Made in 1964 as the screen adaptation of the play by Jean Anouilh "Beckett or the Honor of God" written in 1959, the film takes place in the 12th Century's England but never for a second it feels outdated or old-fashioned. The subjects it explores, the passion and artistry it presents in every scene, its sunning beauty, the use of medieval music, and especially, the incredible craft and chemistry between two great acting legends in their finest performances make the film an outstanding cinematic event and one of the best history/biopics ever made. Magnificent in every sense, "Becket" examines the complex relationship between Henry II (Peter O'Toole), by the words of Sir Winston Churchill, one of the ablest and most remarkable of the English kings, and his best friend from the days if his youth, his trusted confident, his mentor, whom he loved, respected, and appointed his Chancellor, Thomas Beckett (Richard Burton). As Chancellor, Becket was involved in the important acts as the distribution of royal charters, writs and letters. Becket carried out many tasks for Henry II including leading the English army into battle. After Archbishop of Canterbury dies, Henry offers the post to Beckett counting on his unbending loyalty and support in religious questions. To his utmost surprise and anger, Beckett openly defies Henry on the matter of clergymen found guilty of serious crimes. Henry decided that they should be handed over to his courts. Thomas Becket insisted that the church should retain control of punishing its own clergy. The king believed that Becket betrayed him and was determined to obtain revenge which he finally expressed in front of his four knights, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"
It's been several days since I saw the film but I still can't (and I don't think I ever will) decide whose performance was more powerful and remarkable. Both, O'Toole and Burton are simply outstanding and carry the film effortlessly. They both were nominated by the Academy for best leading roles. I will always remember the last Burton's words just before his Becket dies hacked with the knights' swords, "Poor Henry"...In the last moment of his life, he feels sorry for his murderer, his former friend whom he loved but would not betray his principles and beliefs even for him. Another scene is also imprinted in my memory - Henry invites his family for the reunion where he is expected to name his successor. Surrounded by his closest relatives, his mother, his estranged wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, his three sons, whom he never loved nor they loved him. All they want - the throne of England. All he wants - his friend Beckett next to him, but he lost him to God... I'd like to add that the scene of reunion is the source of another film featuring Peter O'Toole as Henry II. In 1968, O'Toole reprised the role of Henry in "The Lion in Winter" where his partner was Katherine Hepburn as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. O'Toole was nominated for the Oscar for both films and lost both times.
For the first time since 1964, "Beckett" is available on DVD with many bonus features that include Peter O'Toole's commentary, two archival interviews with Richard Burton from 1967 and 1977 where he does not speak about "Beckett" but we learned a lot about Richard Burton, the actor and the man, and interviews with editor Anne V. Coats and composer Laurence Rosenthal. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, "Beckett" won for Best Adapted Screenplay. It should have won much more. It deserves every one of its nominations even now, after all these years.
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