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I first saw this movie in the theater when I was six years old. Besides falling madly in love with Richard Burton, I fell in love with the movie, and it remains one of my absolute favorites. I can't praise highly enough the (Oscar-nominated) performances by Burton and O'Toole, two of the greatest actors of all time, (and beautiful men with beautiful voices), great writing, cinematography, etc. About the only fault I can find is some historical inaccuracy. (In fact, I remember being so ticked off when Rex Harrison won for "My Fair Lady," I refused to watch the Academy Awards show again until 1969) If you haven't seen it, you should.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
*spoiler** so be wary*** you've had your warning****
This film may have Burton playing the title role of Becket but, it is O'Toole who shines like a supernova in one of the most challenging and complex roles in any media. I will sound harsh when I say Rex Harrison robbed O'Toole just as harshly as Cliff Robertson robbed O'Toole out of an Oscar. Harrison and Robertson played pleasant, good, nice guy characters and stole O'Toole's trophy for the two times he played a character whose morals were questionable and whose wit was as sharp as his tongue. I hate when "The Academy" awards nice simple characters over complex and often unlikable characters.(ps congradulations to Anthony Hopkins and Michael Douglas to rise above the Academy's sweetheart roles and win). Why did Al Pacino never win for playing Michael Corleone, why did Cuba Gooding win over Edward Norton, why didn't Richard Burton win against Lee Marvin or Paul Scofield? The answer: they were too deep, too complex, and especially too dark for the academy to award them and decided the characters they liked the best were going to win. Let's remember this is a popularity contest not an actual representation of what the best really is, look at Citizen Kane. Kane according to most film critics, fans, and film courses sits at number one of most lists, while How Green Was My Valley sometimes sits outside of most lists (except for AFI, which is a desent list). Does anyone remember who won the Oscar over Bogart's Rick in Casablanca,off the top of their head? Not easy is it.
Well back to Becket, now that I got the injustice off my chest let's get to the heart of the matter. Becket executes the transition from play to movie without missing a beat. In fact, it may be a better picture than a play. The film opens with King Henry II doing penance for the death of the Arch Bishop Of Canterbury Thomas Becket. Then the film shifts to a recap of the events that led to Becket's death. The opening half hour shows the deep friendship and love that the king has for Thomas, O'Toole walks that fine line of adding a level of bisexuality to his character and still having the king be a virile leader. (the bisexuality hinting hurt O'Toole's chance to walk away with Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia, so maybe it hurt him here too.) Burton's stoic and often placid character complements O'Toole's bombastic and passionate character to perfection. Then the story hits the key pivot: Henry fearing that he would lose power to the church makes his newly appointed Chancelor of England, Thomas Becket, and appoints him to become the Arch Bishop of Canterbury and as Arch Bishop Becket is torn between Church and King. As it turns out he decides to abide by a higher power and the friendship is strained into conflict. Henry begins to hate Becket with the same intensity that he loved him and Becket still cares and respects the king but he can't do his accept the kings wishes. Finally the conflict reaches a zenith where Becket seeks sanctuary with France's King and then with the Pope and finally meets with the king to try to reach a peace. Becket and Henry meet on horse back and speak to each other trying to recapture their friendship and try to find a happy medium, which is not possible. Throughout this scene the King mentions the cold often which represents death. After they depart knowing that their friendship although exists and the king's love for Becket exists it only exists like a sunken ship that is at the bottom of the sea that can't be salvaged even though everyone knows the ship is there. Then at a private dinner the king has with his most loyal guards, O'Toole delivers the finest few moments of acting I've seen: drunken and filled with emotions of hate, love, fear, power, insecurity, anger, and depression he speaks to his men about their loyalty and their courseness all really representing his respect for Becket he exclaims,"Won't someone rid me of this meddlesome priest," and his men leave to kill Becket. Before the scene is over Henry instantly becomes remorseful for sending the messengers of death to Thomas and the king mentions that he says, "Forgive me Thomas," (my quote may not be what is said in the film but does get the meaning across) Thomas is then killed and his finals words are, "Henry what have you done," in a sad and forgiving manner. Then the film flashes back to the king serving his penance and then giving a public apology.
This film strikes perfectly what movies should do and is amongst the superior, although nearly forgotten, movies and it is a shame that a film with complex characters and crisp direction, writing, and execution does not win best picture and inferior films and performances do. This is why all the Titanic's and My Fair Lady's of this world don't impress me because deep and intricate films don't usually win over the popular and less intellectually stimulating films. Oh well I'll rant and rave on another good movie that didn't get it's dues.
It's hard to write a review of an old, classic movie. Films are crafted
in the context of their times. This can be cultural context, political
context, technological context, or the context of craft. So it's unfair
to write a movie review of a film 50 years old.
Having said that, I think it's still fair to criticize "Becket" on one very important point that applies to all films, regardless of their era. That point is this:
-- It is important to tell the story using elements appropriate to the tone & timbre of the story. --
A corollary would be this:
-- Telling a story using elements not appropriate to the story will distract the viewer from the story. --
And thus we have "Becket".
"Becket" is a tale of political intrigue, set in 12th century England. It involves two very powerful and intense personalities: the Archbishop of Canterbury and the English king, Henry II. By extension, it also involves two very powerful and grandiose institutions: the Catholic Church and the English Crown. These are strong elements, indeed, and it would seem entirely appropriate to make this film as they did: as an epic, with extravagant set pieces, wide vistas, and extreme acting. But that's the wrong answer.
The story "Becket" tells is really the story of two friends who grow apart and eventually oppose each other on a philosophical & spiritual level. This is really an intimate character piece (albeit one with elaborate costumes), and not an epic movie! It should be driven by dialog, subtlety, tight camera angles, a soft score, and strong performance; and not by grandeur. Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not see this. Their eyes were clouded by other considerations.
This film was made in 1964. What were some of the biggest movies in the early 60s? Big, epic ones. "Spartacus". "Cleopatra". "The Magnificent Seven". "Dr. Zhivago". And, of course, "Lawrence of Arabia", one of the best movies ever created (in my not-so-humble opinion). Unfortunately, the brilliance of "Lawrence" is what actually doomed "Becket". "Lawrence" is a story that demands epicness. It is a vast, sweeping tale of two larger-than-life characters: T. E. Lawrence himself and the vast, desert expanses of the Middle East. It required grandiose sets, spectacular vistas, and a brilliant, over-the-top Peter O'Toole performance. "Becket", on the other hand, is a story that demands subtlety. It's a tragic tale of two friends torn apart by forces larger than they are. It required dialog and subtlety, not bombast and brass. But the filmmakers took the "Lawrence" route with "Becket", and as a result, the former is a masterpiece, and the latter is anachronistic and nearly unwatchable by today's audience.
"Becket" is a story that should be given another go. It's actually a fascinating story. I think it's ripe for a remake, based on the success of other period-piece dramas on TV and in film. Maybe a new filmmaker could create the proper blend of magnificence appropriate to the characters and institutions with the subtlety required by the story.
In 1963 I went to the theater in Buenos Aires to see the magnificent play of
Jean Anouilh "Becket or the honor of God".
I loved it very much. In fact, I saw it thrice within a couple of months. But nevertheless I felt disappointed with the outcome of the portrait of King Henry II, performed by Lautaro Murua, the best actor in Argentina - actually he was born in Chile - in the last fifty years.
It was not because the performance was bad. It was excellent. But Murua only could transmit the coarse side of Henry´s personality, not his noble side. He did not have the physique du role.
I must say that I liked his performance very much more than Duilio Marzio´s characterization of Thomas Becket. Marzio is not a bad actor, but representing Becket is a very difficult task, as we should see later.
After my third view of the play, I guessed it might come soon as a movie. Who should be King Henry was my first wonder. Immediately I choose for myself a young actor who played the main role in David Lean´s "Lawrence of Arabia" and just have acted in a minor film, namely "Lord Jim".
I was delighted when before a year later the film was released precisely with Peter O´Toole in the role of the King. The version was excellent, though again I had to complain about the characterization of Tomas Becket, this time by Richard Burton. I think it was the only Burton´s poor performance throughout his remarkable career.
The fact is that Anouilh´s Thomas Becket is an intellectual youngster full of mannerisms, intending to be a cynical play boy and a smart chancellor at the same time and later he has to become an energic and virtuous archbishop. The script leads dangerously to fall either into an overacting and almost effeminate characterization (Marzio) or to inexpressive acting (Burton) in order to avoid it.
I must say that my choice for Thomas Becket was the American actor George Peppard, but I was not very sure about it, mainly because Peppard was not British. Nevertheless I don´t think that his characterization would have been very much better than the one Richard Burton finally performed. Even today I wonder if there is an actor capable of showing the exact personality of this particular Thomas Becket. Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis, as he is so versatile, but I´m not quite sure.
Instead, Peter O´Toole´s characterization was really outstanding. His performance was so good as in "Lawrence" and later on in "Good bye Mr. Chips" and again as King Henry II in "Lion in winter". And he was noble and coarse at the same time. Wonderful choice!
Another comment I want to add is that - as far as I know - "Becket" has not been seen again in Argentina since 1964, nor in TV nor in videos. I can hardly imagine that there does not exist a video of this excellent and valuable film.
This story is about the power struggle that developed between Thomas
Becket and King Henry II. Before this occurs, the film gives a bit of
background, as the film begins with Becket as Henry's most trusted
friend and adviser. Because they were so close (and at times, I seemed
to have felt a homosexual undercurrent), it made Becket's refusal to be
a yes-man all the harder for Henry to accept. But, in his new church
office, Becket was not willing to consider even this dear
friendship--his primary responsibility was to his church.
The film handles this very long power struggle quite well. While the film doesn't quite give you the sense of time this occurred (on and off again for almost a decade), the reasons for it are well spelled out, the dialog sparkling and the entire production fascinating. I was particularly impressed by Richard Burton's performance as Becket--he underplayed it well. While Peter O'Toole also received an Oscar nomination like Burton for his performance, his Henry seemed a bit bombastic and overly dramatic. Perhaps this was the real Henry--though it seemed that occasionally this performance bordered on the over-acted. Still, this was a very, very minor gripe. With lovely production values, a good script and attention to details, this is a film well worth seeing--and one of the best costume dramas you can find.
While the British have commented on the violence that has beset
American History, in particular the assassinations of several
Presidents, Senators, Governors (or ex-governors) and other political
figures and leaders, they have not escaped such events themselves. But
very few political murders have ended up in British cinema. One can
note the crimes ascribed to Richard III, the judicial murders of Henry
VIII and Elizabeth, and the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham in
1628, as well as the trial and execution of King Charles I. But the
assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Percival or the poisoning of
Sir Thomas Overbury by King James I's favorite and his wife are not
filmed. There is no film about the murders of King Edward II or King
Richard II.* No movie about the Phoenix Park assassinations of 1882
either, for that matter.
[*There is a film about Edward II, based on Marlowe's play - but it is not specifically about his murder.]
But the murder of Thomas a'Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in that city's cathedral in 1170 has been the subject of several films (including some silent films) and this 1964 movie based on the play by French dramatist Jean Anouih. The last was a powerful adaptation of the great collision between Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and his chief adviser and friend turned enemy Thomas Becket (Richard Burton).
Henry had built the strongest monarchy England had had since the Norman Conquest a century and a half earlier, including large chunks of France (due to his inheritance from William the Conqueror, but also through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine). But although ruler of (what he says in THE LION IN WINTER) the largest empire in Europe since Charlemagne's, he has problems. Although the marriage with Eleanor was a love match at first (he stole her from the King of France, her original husband), a conflict of wills has developed. They still have had three sons at this point (1165 or so), but Henry has extra-marital urges. He has a mistress named Gwendolen, whose existence arouses jealousy in his wife - which she turns into stirring up treasonable thoughts in their older sons (Prince Henry and Prince Richard). There is also trouble with the Saxons, which has led to Henry depending on Becket as his chief adviser on internal matters to keep the native Britons in check.
Then the elderly Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) dies. Henry, in what he thinks is a brilliant move, makes Becket his new Archbishop (Becket was originally in holy orders, so he has the background to make such an appointment barely tolerable). What Henry does not realize is that Becket (who urges Henry not to make the appointment) realizes that if he is to serve the Church he can only have one true master: God, not the King. So when Henry starts intruding on Church matters, regarding criminal behavior by clergymen, Becket does not look the other way nor excuse the King's behavior with Rome. He condemns the King's behavior. And when a priest is killed, Becket puts the kingdom under an interdict as punishment. Then he flees to France and then to Rome.
I suppose to a 20th or 21st Century audience the conflict seems quite archaic, but it remains serious. Just how universal is the power of any civil government regarding freedom of religion? Canon law was supposed to govern the punishment of priests who committed crime - and so Henry's actions led to his nation being put outside the pale of "Christian" states in Europe - until he apologized. Though interdicts are not used anymore on whole nations, there is still such conflicts today. Just think of the U.S. public's reaction to the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church in the last few years regarding the latter's protection of priests who molested male or female children.
To Henry the actions of his former protégé and friend were treasonous. They were also annoying. Henry, in one of his early moves, made the religious leader Nicholas Brakespeare Pope Adrian IV. It was the only time in history that an English cleric reached the papal throne. But Adrian died after a fairly brief reign, and Pope Alexander III was now in the Vatican, and he was not as malleable as Adrian had been. Despite Henry's demands, Becket was protected by the Pope, and the King had to issue an apology. But Becket was a marked man from then on. His death in the Cathedral followed within a year of his return to England. Henry, facing universal Papal wrath, allowed himself to be whipped at Canterbury as penance for the tragedy.
Both O'Toole and Burton were nominated for the best actor's Oscar. John Guilgud plays the cagey and sophisticated King Louis of France. Donald Wolfit is the former teacher of Becket, the Bishop of London. Sian Phillips (then Peter O'Toole's wife) is the ill-fated Gwendolen, and Pamela Brown the jealous and deadly Eleanor. It is a first rate historical entertainment, and one that sticks pretty closely to the actual events of the tragic 1170 collision of the King and his Archbishop.
something magic defines Becket. the source is not the acting, the music, the costumes, atmosphere. but the silence. it does force to the fight for honor, to loyalty, to the friendship and to the final word of king. it is the heart of tension and the drawing of lead characters. Richard Burton does one of his memorable roles. but his role is like a coat for two. his Thomas Becket is great, convincing, touching, profound, vulnerable and profound human for the science of Peter O ' Toole to discover his Henri II as the runner to his precise destiny. it seems be the film of two great actors and that is its high virtue. but its status of memorable movie has deeper roots. because it becomes more than a remarkable play adaptation and sustain a generous message in brilliant manner. story of power and faith, it is good support of reflection about politics and its necessary limits.
'Becket' examines the rather intricate relationship between the
headstrong 11th-century King Henry II of England (O'Toole) and his
lifelong friend, Thomas Becket (Burton). On the surface, the two appear
to be really close chums who spend their time wenching and drinking -
king and servant, but friends foremost. However, there are layers below
this, as Henry clearly revels in his lust for living and more than a
little affection for his servant Becket. Unable to consummate his love
for his fellow man, he drowns his desires in women. Becket is much more
of an enigma, and his motivations are somewhat elusive. He clearly
relishes the company of his king, but is not entirely comfortable with
his attentions. He is a Saxon, one of the conquered, requiring him to
straddle the gulf between honor and collaboration, serving his Norman
King in several capacities as a valet, a bodyguard and a military
adviser. He wears his compromises poorly, and longs for a simpler,
honorable way of living.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, with view to subjugate the mighty Church, Henry picks Becket to be the successor, despite not even being an ordained priest, which proves to be his undoing. As soon as the miter is upon his head and the silver cross in his hand, Becket becomes a thorn in the king's side, opposing him on a point of principle, straining their friendship and putting Becket's life in peril. Henry loves Becket, as he adores no other human being in his life, and it hurts him to the core that Becket chooses honor over their friendship. 'Becket' soon moves from power play to power struggle, a struggle that Henry is not ready to lose.
On the surface, Becket appears to be a humdrum king versus a dignified politician war. But, here, the primary conflict is between the throne of England in its debauchery, and the Church, with its compromised morality. The characters, even while wearing robes of power, stink to highest heaven in every sense. While protected by their power, they freely admit the moral sewer they occupy, and serve their gluttonous appetites with aplomb. Absolute power allows the veneer of quality to drip away, and we can be most thankful for this lack of varnish. Just as the characters' loyalties to one another are called into question, so, too are ours: 'Becket' enters a moral gray area from which it never fully emerges.
Becket crackles with whip-smart dialogue and is anchored by a sharp screenplay that finds resonance even today. Peter Glenville directs with a flamboyant hand, but mostly he lets his two leads have free rein, and the results are glorious. Richard Burton is always at his best when reserved, and this is no exception. Peter O'Toole rips into the script as if he invented the art of acting, and belts out some of the best lines. He has a slithery charm that suddenly erupts into volcanic expulsions of blind fury. His chemistry with Burton is ripe with homo-erotic undercurrents, which O'Toole mines with relish in a hysterical performance, full of cunning, eloquence and mad outbursts.
Years later, Becket remains just as incandescent and relevant!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Wait a minute! Becket is a Saxon? Isn't that stretching literary
license a bit far? It is hard to believe that modern Britain can trace
its roots in part to a tribe of Vikings who first forced their way into
France and then conquered England, which indicated that if any group
deserves dramatic treatment, it's the Normans. They went all over
Europe and Mideast, and they were force to be reckoned with. So to make
Becket a Saxon seems such a come down, especially when it's not true,
and even a drama should not take such license. This movie would have
worked well as a drama if Becket had been portrayed as a Norman, which
would have made the bond between he and Henry more plausible. That the
Norman king would have a Saxon as his closest confidante seems a bit
too much to accept, and in fact, it did not happen.
Nevertheless, this is an entertaining and well-acted movie. Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton are excellent in the principal roles. However, although despite its trappings as a credible historical account of a political conflict with sexual overtones, the movie is pure fiction with a story line that is hokey and contrived. The conflict that is the central theme of the plot, loyalty versus integrity, is unconvincing. A nobleman murders a priest and Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, demands justice and when none is forthcoming, excommunicates the offender. What's the problem? Becket was doing his job, but the king, who is also Becket's patron and best friend and expects Becket to act the role of a stooge, since it is the king who had Becket installed as Archbishop, objects. Of course, there was probably a lot more going on between Becket and Henry, which the movie omits. The audience is asked to accept the premise that the king is so insecure that he cannot tolerate even the slightest action that can be construed, or misconstrued, as a challenge to his power. Now, if the Becket had tried to raise an army and start a civil war, then the king wanting to protect himself and his office would be understandable, but no such challenge happens, nor ever did happen. Becket confines his actions to that of an ecclesiastic nature which was well within the scope of his authority. That the king, who is a profligate, refuses to go along with Becket is unsurprising, and that politics ruins what was otherwise a wonderful friendship is regrettable, but what else is new? If Becket was as obnoxious as Henry, then the movie may have produced some fireworks. Instead, the movie presents Becket as being so passive that he cannot possibly pose a threat to anyone, and as proof of his abject vulnerability even flees England for his life. Such an action does not suggest a man who is a threat nor does it make for high drama, or any level of drama. The movie insinuates that perhaps Henry and Becket had a homosexual relationship, but even this is treated in a half-baked manner which further dampens the movie's dramatic impact. Probably the strongest scene is the one in which Henry's wife, Eleanor, who is portrayed as a whining, self-indulgent shrill, gives Henry a public tongue lashing, which he deserved, being obsessed with a man who, to the rest of the court, is a nobody. Richard Burton gives a strong and dignified portrayal of Becket, in stark contrast to Peter O'Toole's hysterical and over-the-top performance which makes the king come off as a buffoon. His fixation on Becket seems hollow and without substance, more so since Becket himself is an emotional neuter who is most comfortable when he is alone, and with the likes of Henry and the king's pouting wife around, who could blame him?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Everyoneknows the story of Thomas Becket, but this production is worth
watching for the performances of Richard Burton and Peter O Toole
Burton is excellent as the noble if wayward(at least to start with) Becket and O Toole is excellent as King Henry The Second, who by the films end has become Beckets mortal enemy.
The film is magnificently directed by the late Peter Glenville and John Gielgud contributes and interesting cameo as the King of France.
Becket is one of those films which is timeless, it is a story that grips you and never lets go. Even at its length of 2 hours and 24 minutes it is a gripping historical drama, certainly the best film of Richard Burtons mid career.
Becket is a film of immense power and by the end you really will have tears in your eyes as Becket is slain in his own cathedral.
Becket is a five star movie all the way, it is sumptuous and exciting.
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