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The tale of Thomas Becket has had many incarnations over time. T.S.
Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral' is but the most recent acclaimed
literary treatment; each revisitation seems to draw new elements forth
from the story. Edward Anhalt won the Oscar for best screenplay
(adapted from other material) for this film. This film shows Henry and
Thomas Becket roughly equal in age (at variance from history, for in
this time the age difference of 15 years is practically a generational
difference). Becket is shown as being a guide to Henry, but less from a
master/pupil standpoint as it is a clever diplomatic with a utilitarian
and almost Machiavellian sense about him. Henry is presented as coarse
and unrefined, uneducated and in need of assistance, but historically
this is unlikely.
Becket is played admirably by Richard Burton; Henry II is portrayed by Peter O'Toole. Both were nominated for the best actor Oscar, but neither won. In addition to these nominations and the best screenplay award, the film was nominated for nine other Oscars, running the list from costumes, music, directing, best picture, and a best supporting actor nod for John Gielgud, whose cameo as the King of France is rather interestingly presented.
Indeed, the movie has a remarkable realistic feel to it, particularly for a film from the 1960s, when cinema was as likely to portray stylised and idealistic images of the past. The sets are in bare stone with a minimum of ornamentation, as would have been the case in Plantagenet times; likewise, the ceremony around the royal person is much less grand, and the church rather grand, which is both accurate and serves to highlight the underlying conflict of the story in the film.
Becket is portrayed as a man of ambiguous loyalties -- a man of principle who has yet to find principles worthy of loyalty. Finally, in the role of archbishop, he finds a calling from the honour of God (and in so doing is not unlikely many priests who see their path to ordination as the means of spiritual grace; indeed, many are disappointed that the faith does not come with the office). Whether Thomas Becket actually experienced a spiritual conversion that made him a strong champion of the church, or in fact saw the power of the church as a means to an end of dominating the country, we will perhaps never know.
In the film, Becket is often disparaged as being a Saxon; this is perhaps overstated, given his Norman lineage, which is never hinted at in the film. While he does not come from Norman nobility, he is far from being a simple Saxon. Burton's portrayal of Becket shows the change from worldly chancellor to spiritual archbishop in unsubtle terms. Even so, there is an ambiguity that plays out marvelously in both his performance, and the reactions of the other characters who constantly question his sincerity.
O'Toole's performance is not as polished as Burton's; when he plays an older, wiser Henry II in 'The Lion in Winter' four years later, the acting is much more dramatic and effective. It perhaps goes without saying that Pamela Brown does not make the same impression on the screen as Eleanor of Aquitaine as Katherine Hepburn does in the later film, but Eleanor is an incidental character in Becket in any case.
Music in this film is not a prominent feature -- various trumpet and brass flourishes announce events or major scene changes in parts; a lot of chant (long before Gregorian chant achieved popular status) accompanies church scenes -- indeed, I credit this film for giving me my first real taste of Gregorian chant. The scene with Sian Phillips as Becket's love Gwendolyen is accompanied by period string instruments -- again, Phillips is a remarkable actress who is under-utilised in this performance.
Done in a flash-back manner, there is a resolution in the film -- Becket is dead, made a saint, honour is satisfied as the King does penance, and the people are happy. We know what is going to happen, but then, anyone with knowledge of history would likely know the story already. In fact, Henry's reign was rarely without challenge, but he was always powerful, and much more effective after Becket's death than before. Reigning for nearly twenty years after Becket's death, he left a very powerful Western European coalition of lands that soon fell apart, and embroiled England and France in war for centuries later. The tensions between church and state carry forward to this day; while the specifics of the challenges faces Becket and Henry II are very different from issues today, the principle of the relationship between church and state is far from definitively resolved.
Also, the side-line issue of class warfare and racial prejudice (teased out with subtle nuance between the Normans and Saxons, who, ironically, look exactly the same on the screen) are addressed in an interesting, pre-civil rights sort of manner. This issue is never resolved in the film, as indeed it wasn't in the 1960s, either.
This is an intriguing film, with great acting and great production values, and an interesting story that, even if not completely historically accurate, does not alter the history so much that it becomes a parody of the subject.
Ah, words. To paraphrase Henry Higgins, they are the pillars of society.
Language is the means by which emotions are expressed, wars and love affairs
are started and ended, and friendships are struck -- and melted down.
"Becket" is a movie in love with words, their eloquence and, in some cases,
majesty. It's a movie about friendship and loyalty, God and country, and
the dynamics that occur when one tries to mix them together. I cannot think
of movie so in love with words in recent memory; the only one that comes
close (perhaps even superseding it) is "A Man for All Seasons." This is the
proverbial film to sink your mental teeth into. It is cerebral,
challenging, controversial, and tragic. If you've ever had a friend grow
more and more distant no matter how hard you tried to keep things right --
this is for you.
And that is all I have to say about that...
My comments here tend to be Misremembrances of things past. I know I saw
"Becket" decades ago while I must have been suffering from a periodic bout
of reviling Richard Burton. Having recently seen "Cleopatra" again, I will
forgive myself. Still, there are movies that I've enjoyed - "The Spy Who
Came in from the Cold" and "The Night of the Iguana", to name 2 - so I
thought I'd give "Becket" another try.
Historical movies are among my favorites, although the IMDB parameter of not spoiling restricts me from discussing plot. But this is a movie that made me click on here to see who directed it...since directing Burton and O'Toole must have been like being a meterologist tracking a tornado and a hurricane. Their synergy is astounding...but whereas O'Toole launches himself on occassion into a thespian stratosphere it is Burton's performance that is incandescent. There are scenes..."inner monologues" - queries to God, where the ribald Burton is transformed into a man illuminated by a spiritual puzzle - he cannot believe that he is becoming who he is becoming - and it is Burton's challenge to share that bewilderment with us.
Well, I'm comforted that I can now stretch the glory days of historical film-making at least to "Becket." Any film in which John Gielgud, Martita Hunt, Felix Aylmer and Pamela Brown are "supporting" - how do I put it, "supporting" performances such as these are most other actors' triumphs. The costumes and sets are sumptous. Finis.
Becket is one of my favorite movies. It is possibly the most underrated
movie of all time and I consider it one of the top five greatest
movies. It has everything for everyone and is done at such a high level
too. The center point of this movie is definitely its writing.
The writing by Edward Anhalt is the best I have ever seen and that is no exaggeration. Line after line I was just in awe. Every line had so much meaning and just made more and more anxious on what would happen next. It was funny, witty, intelligent and serious all at the same time. I have never seen such an amazing blend of so many different themes and working so greatly. This is usually how movies falter not succeed but this movie was like five movies mixed into one yet very enjoyable mostly in part of the writing. Many people like to memorize lines from the Godfather series, but I believe this movie contains so much more than even the Godfather. The Godfather is more like one of those quote pamphlets with 10-15 pages. Becket is not just like but really seems to be a quote book with a couple of 100 pages filled with quotes. Still this movie was not done to impress with just good lines it has a real story to it. The story was so amazingly strung together along with its amazing quotes this script seems to be absolutely perfect.
The acting was at its best. Peter O'Toole gave a performance only second to his performance in Lawrence of Arabia. He displayed everything that a king has especially that of Henry II. He displayed the immaturity, the constant swaying of opinion according to how he feels and at the same the stubbornness that a king has not accepting what anyone else has to say, except for his close friend Thomas Becket, at least for a while. He portrayed such a complex and just down right strange character. Then there is Richard Burton who was nothing short of greatness either giving one of his best performances as well. He of course plays Thomas Becket who reluctantly stands up to his friend and his king, Henry II in the name of equality and for basic civil and human rights. His performance was the most inspiring performance I have seen from Richard Burton. In the movie he has surprised at his own transformation but yet proud of what he was doing because it is the right thing to do. Yet there is still more. John Gieglud gave a great supporting performance as King Louis the VII of France. He just added to the laughs and provided a much needed extra character and voice to add something a little different and gave some diversity as well. I believe he was very much overlooked for such a great performance, this not too shocking though when you are playing next to Burton and O'toole. As they say in sports he was the X-factor.
The directing and editing was also add its height. The directing by Peter Glenville was just spectacular when it came to art direction and costumes to the camera shots of the castles and ceremonies all the way back around to the cinematography. I have read that nobody knows how good a movie was edited except for the editor and director. In this case you can clearly see that this movie was edited together perfectly, with its great music and sound effects to stringing together all the scenes together to near perfection.
It is so clear that this movie was worked on very carefully and precisely and was not made just to make money but to provide a message and a purpose. It is just a sham that this movie lost best picture to My Fair Lady in a year that had so many great movies including Zorba the Greek, Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker to even Mary Poppins. Yet Becket seems to have everything that undoubtedly what those great movies have in every technical aspect but most importantly in the multiple messages and themes that it has making it one of the best to have ever been conceived.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
`Becket' is about how Archbishop Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) stood up to
King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and was, eventually, killed for it. This is
not interesting because Becket is the Archbishop and Henry II is the king,
but because they were great friends and shared a deep love for one
This film could not have been made now, forty years later. Reason being: there's no action. That's not a complaint, mind you, my point is that when audiences these days go to a movie set in the middle ages, they expect swashbuckling. This is a sword and sandal epic without the swords, brave enough to be an emotional epic rather than an adventurous one.
The movie is still a visual feast, though. It's beautiful to look at, wonderful to take in. All the colors, landscapes, skies, castles, costumes, filmed with the vibrant, life-capturing cameras of the 60s that have been unequaled since. I usually don't care for the scenery in movies, but this one is beautiful.
The movie starts with Henry II visiting the grave of Becket, ready to be punished for something we have yet to know about (but something that's still easy to guess). We then flash back to when Becket was still alive, mischievously playing with a young village woman with Henry II before escaping on horseback. This scene is key in showing what little morals Henry II has, and how little Becket cares about it. Henry II and Becket are good friends, Henry II talks to Becket about how much he despises all of the properness and superficiality of royal life and Becket listens, nods and passes wisdom.
But there is something Henry II doesn't know about Thomas Becket: he's an honest man. If he's supposed to do something, he will, without submitting to corruptness. This is because he does not want to risk losing any self-respect or dignity. That's why when Henry II announces him Archbishop he begs for him not to. Henry II is doing this so he can control the church, but Becket will not listen to Henry II when he is carrying a title that says he listens to God before anyone.
Then something unexpected happens to Becket: he realizes he loves serving his Lord. He tells the Lord he's never been happier, after giving all of his wealthy possessions to the poor. When Henry II first hears about this he is infuriated. He wants Becket to listen to his king, not his Lord. He doesn't see the big picture, that being Becket cares about his soul more than his country. He can see it, but he chooses not to, because he is selfish.
When an English lord kills a fugitive monk before trial, Becket demands he be punished. Henry II can't do this because he'll lose favor with the people. Becket excommunicates the lord from the church. This angers Henry II so much that hate sets in, and he starts plotting to kill Becket, who becomes a fugitive of England. Henry II hates Becket because he thinks he's stubborn, but what Henry II doesn't realize is that Becket is standing up for what he believes in.
Throughout this whole story both characters are played perfectly by Burton and O'Toole, neither actors ever losing their focus on their performance. O'Toole's performance is very physical, he screams, cries, stomps around whatever room he's in like a storm. Burton's is more inward; all the acting is entirely in his face, eyes, mouth and voice, and he conveys Becket's emotions effortlessly with these four tools. Both men were fantastic actors, two I respect very much.
The rest of the cast is fair and good, but not many get as much attention as Burton and O'Toole. Of the ones that do are John Gielgud in a delightfully funny, Oscar nominated role as King Louis VII of France and Martita Hunt and Pamela Brown as Henry II's nagging wife and mother. You might call the supporting cast small, but it doesn't need to be large because of Burton and O'Toole's towering performances.
The film, beautifully shot and emotionally acted, was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning only for its screenplay, but how neither Burton nor O'Toole won I'll never know. A film fantastic within every inch of its being, 8.5/10.
What p****s me off about this film is that it, like "Metropolis", is a forgotten one. Why? Why is it that everything has to be razzle-dazzle eye candy, instead of a subtle, beautiful, fine piece of craftsmanship and storytelling. "Becket" was tough to watch, because of all the grain and clicks on the neglected print. But past all of the distortion of a neglected print, I found a very remarkable and exquisite achievement that ranks among some of the best films ever made! The craftsmanship is just the beginning! It gets better! Peter O'Toole, who ironically, played Henry II years later in "A Lion in Winter", does a superb job. He's so angry, volatile, and above all, whiny. When I saw the Disney version on "Robin Hood", with Peter Ustinov playing the voice of the whiny Prince John, I felt it was directly inspired by Peter O'Toole's Henry II! He was so good at being a great whiner. And Richard Burton, as Thomas Becket, looks so reserved, strong, and reverent, as a friend of Henry II who's faith and belief in God and serving the people, brings a rift in their friendship. I also felt bad that not only was this a crappy print, but also that the beautiful photography seemed so small on the TV. This is the kind of film that needs to be seen on the big screen in order to fully appreciate it. I hope that this gets some more respect and popularity, because it needs it and it has deserved it for years!
If this movie had won all that Academy Awards that it was deservedly nominated for it would be a well-remembered film today but it seems like a forgotten classic. I haven't seen it shown on TV in years and seldom hear people talk about or reference this film. It won a best screenplay Oscar but was basically shut out. Best Picture, Best Director, two Lead Actor, one Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Score and Sound nominations that all came up short. Two great Actors Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole during the peak or prime of their careers with the great John Gielgud as a bonus. Wow! What an acting duel between Burton and O'Toole. A great script and great direction. This film has a lot going for it and deserved and should have won most of it's nominations but any other two actors in the lead and I may not have given it a 10 but this is a 10 and I highly recommend it.
After having read the other comments, I hardly feel able to improve upon what has already been so eloquently expressed. For anyone who enjoys high-caliber acting, intriguing dialogue, and complex relationships in a film, this is a must-see. I agree with a comment that Burton was shafted the oscar for his performance of Becket. It does seem at times that the Academy veers from rewarding darker, complex, mercurial characters in favor of anaesthitized heroic caricatures. It is one of the greatest tragedies of film-making that the talented are often unrewarded and forgotten. Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole are perfect foils in this film. The souring of their friendship makes a deeply moving story. Historical inaccuracies I can easily forgive; this is a dramatic film, not a documentary, and a director and screenwriter must condense lives into a believable and appealing plot. It is far better to make alterations than to have nothing such as this produced... (Having exposed myself thus, I must own that I am also a history scholar and usually a stickler regarding more inferior productions.) All in all, I recommend this film to anyone who enjoys superior acting and thought-provoking drama.
This movie is a classic. It is so wonderful, my praises can't do it justice. The acting is second to none. The dialogue is incredible. The story magnificent. It's truly a masterpiece. I have seen this movie at the very least 25 times. It is one of those movies you can watch again and again. This movie has so many memorable scenes. Only Casablanca can be compared in that way. And it stands up over time, some great old flicks get outdated, this one has not. It's a rare movie. You can read the other posts about the storyline. If this movie was released today, it would win every academy award. DO NOT MISS THIS MOVIE. You will never see 2 actors this great starring together ever again. One of the all time best films.
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
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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