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It's a strange experience re-viewing a movie half a century (or almost)
after the first viewing. When ' Becket ' appeared on the Romanian
screens the year must have been 1964 (the year the film production ) or
1965. My emotional and selective memory kept the character of Becket
and the image of Richard Burton about whose career I was already fully
aware that time. I did not know Peter O'Toole well yet, or in any case
I was not aware enough of his stature. For reasons that only censorship
in Romania at that time knows that film about pious Saint Thomas Becket
was brought to screens, but the one about the hero dedicated to the
Arab national cause 'Lawrence of Arabia' was not. It's probably only
after I saw ' Man of La Mancha ' that I understood what a huge actor
O'Toole was. The main lines of the conflict between King Henry II and
the Bishop of Canterbury were clear to me, and I remembered them when
half a life later we visited Canterbury and I stepped onto the tiles
once stained with the blood of St. Thomas.
Based on a play by Jean Anouilh 'Becket' was first a hit on Broadway (with Lawrence Olivier and Anthony Quinn in the lead roles) and then in the West End where Eric Porter and Christopher Plummer played directed by Peter Hall. Peter Grenville, the director of the American version assumed the task of directing the film produced at the legendary Shepperton Studios in England. 'Becket' is a historical drama that largely follows the tradition of the great Shakespearean adaptation, however, the text of Jean Anhouilh balances the historical conflict with the story of a passionate friendship between two great men who have shared the stage history of the period in which they lived.
Almost a hundred years after the invasion of England, the Norman ruling class continues to be in conflict with the invaded Saxons. For Anhouilh the political dimension of the text is clear, the play was written and first staged in Paris 15 years of the liberation of France and the end of the collaboration with the German occupiers. Does Thomas Becket 's vision represents an absolution carried by Anhouil of the act of collaboration with the occupiers, in a situation when they know that violent resistance can lead to nothing but a heroic death? This dilemma is present mainly in the first part of the play and the film gradually shits its focus to the religious and personal conflicts between the two main characters. Becket's character seems to be made of the material of which martyrs are made, but historical righteousness is actually on King Henry's side. Centralization of state and the principles of equality in face of the law of all citizens are historical phenomena that will prevail in the coming decades and will form the basis of the first written constitution in European history. Blood spilled in Canterbury , reconciliation and penance undertaken by king will cement the English nation and will define the balance of powers between the Kingdom and the Church of England.
Like many historical blockbusters of the time 'Becket' touches today in places other than the ones that resonated with the audiences half a century ago. The accuracy of the historical reconstruction has been perfected in many other productions that followed, on the other hand none brought on the same screen two great actors in film history at their maximum intensity. Burton was at the peak of his career, this was one of his last major roles before entering the descending slope (in roles on screen and in life). I dare say though that besides the fact that Burton's eyes are more blue, Peter O'Toole surpasses him in almost all aspects and King Henry survives better than 50 years of life on the screen added to the 800 years of history. While Becket's character evolves from Saxon nationalism to predictable holiness, King Henry is torn between blind faith in friendship, disappointment in the face of what he perceives to be betrayal, misunderstanding of the reasons and motivation of the actions of his friend, Machiavellianism and Pharisaism . O'Toole created with passion and cruelty a character whose cynicism includes all the psychological motivations for the acts they commit. The final scene includes the premises of reconciliation between state and church, by the King act of apparent penance and hypocrite sanctification of the man whose death King Henry ordered, leading to the subordination of the Church of England to the Crown. The balance of power between the two characters turned upside down in history.
This colorful historical drama from the court of King Henry II tackles the conflict between Church and State, siding in no uncertain terms with the Church and Thomas Becket, Henry's Saxon (actually Norman) drinking buddy, who discovered his immortal soul after being elevated for purely political reasons to the throne of Archbishop (where he was promptly assassinated by Henry's over-zealous knights). The script places Becket on an ivory pedestal, but O'Toole's Henry steals the film, most likely because his regal temper tantrums (and suggested homosexual affection for the Archbishop) are more fun to watch than Becket's born-again moral anguish. Some clumsy exposition, notably the introduction to the flashback narrative structure, is camouflaged by literate dialogue and a pair of strong performances, and purists can be thankful for DVD technology: the earlier videotape added so much panning and scanning to the original wide screen production it almost had to be considered an entirely different film.
Among the most intelligent of all historical epics. Edward Anhalt did a
splendid job of adapting Jean Anouilh's play, (he won an Oscar), and
Peter Glenville did an equally splendid job in opening it up. It's the
story of the conflict between Thomas Becket and King Henry 11 of
England which lead eventually to Becket's martyrdom in Canterbury
It's a long film and a wordy one, but such is the quality of Anhalt's script it's a film that is well worth listening to. It's also splendidly acted. This was the first great part Burton had in the movies and he was wonderful. It was the closest Burton had come on screen up to that point in showing what he was capable of on the stage. O'Toole, of course, was simply magnificent as Henry. (He was to reprise the role four years later in "The Lion in Winter"). It's a grand-standing performance that comes perilously close to ham on occasions but it's far too intelligent for ham and O'Toole is far too intelligent an actor to over-indulge himself. In a splendid supporting cast John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit and Martita Hunt are outstanding. It is also superbly photographed and designed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
i scanned thru all the comments again after seeing the movie tonight,
wondering if anyone at all saw the same film i did; the only one i
found who had goes by irish23. i watched the film for two reasons:
IMDb's stunning reviews, and my own wish to see an earlier henry from
o'toole. just a few nights ago i had watched lion in winter.
the comparison was not kind to becket; this film disappoints. after all the sterling reviews posted here i hesitate to swim against the river, but this is a movie that had it all coming out of the gate and missed its mark. i'm not advising anyone to not see it; just be prepared for a more mediocre film than you might have been expecting.
both of these leads are capable of really superb performances, none better, and neither were given leeway in this movie to show that talent. i think maybe the direction is the main problem, but the writing in lion in winter is very superior. where lion in winter just cuts, jars, shakes and amazes you constantly with great dialogue and memorable scenes this movie comes off as jumpy, incomplete, sometimes stilted and occasionally rather histrionic. i am a great fan of both these actors and it is a disappointment to me to say all this. by all means watch it, but do so in fair proximity to lion in winter and see what you think of the comparison. don e.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As many users have commented, this is a masterpiece that is largely
overlooked and not seen too often on TV - director Peter Glenville,
writers Jean Anouilh and Lucienne Hill created a wonderful movie. TCM
presented it tonight and I was fortunate enough to see it again. Many
users write intelligently about its magnificence, showing that younger
people who consider films from the 60s to be not worth too much are
very wrong. Many great movies came from that decade, including "Becket"
"Henry II" (Peter O'Toole) is a fabulous role, repeated again several years later in "The Lion in Winter". Both O'Toole and Burton are magnificent in this movie, with not much happening with the rest of the cast. Both were passed-over for Oscars, but they should have won. Burton was a huge "partier," not really suited to be cast as a Catholic priest, but his stellar acting certainly displays a sweet conversion from frolicking to holy man. O'Toole played his role will brilliance, chewing-up the scenery as he does in "Lion in Winter".
The lineage of the royal family of England, in those days, had a lot of incest, bisexuality, etc. In "Lion in winter," Henry II tells his young lady-lover (whom he is romancing, because he has locked-up his wife, Eleanor of Aquitane) "I've experienced every kind of sex, including young boys". Eleanor had been married to Louis VII of France; this marriage was dissolved because of close familial ties. Henry marries Eleanor because she owns "The Aquitane", across the channel from England, a part of France. British monarchs had armies, but no cash. Henry and Eleanor fought several battles for the control of England, with Henry recognizing Aquitane was vital to keep his kingdom going. "Becket" also say they had four sons; they were constantly feuding who was going to ascend the throne after him. In "Becket," he does appoint his OLDEST son, Henry, as the heir; in "Lion", he has intentions of doing so to his youngest son (Henry), but realizes the son is an idiot. The only other son who has the strength to command a large army is Richard (who became "The Lion Heart", Eleanor's favorite). Richard had been a lover of French Prince Philip, the son of the man Eleanor was married to (Louis VII), by another marriage. Younger viewers most likely do not know this history, therefore making both films uninteresting to them.
"Henry II" appoints "Becket" as Arch-Bishop of Canterbury, and the fireworks begin. Although "Henry" loudly confirms his love for "Becket", he really wants to control The Church, but "Becket" realizes he loves it more than he does his king. Nothing more is needed to be said to assure viewers this movie is one to be relished.
Costumes - tacky for "Henry", grand for "Becket" - are wonderful. There wasn't too much score, thank heavens ! Unneeded. An English production, this movie should be seen by all artistic-loving people. Re-makes would be impossible, because of the lack of talent to carry them off. It is to Paramount's good business-sense to have released it in the USA.
Look it up - you won't regret viewing it. Although some have said the print was "grainy," TCM presented the DVD version - impeccable ! It should be in all good collections - I rate it as 20 -
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The film gets rid of some of Anouilh's stage directions and the
grandiloquent sounding setting he had devised. The actors are great,
the acting is very good, and the music is fascinating, though
voluntarily anachronic: this is not a historical film. Same remark
about the costumes that are of a fashion that will only appear in mid
13th century. But it retains the absurd historical vision Jean Anouilh
imposed onto the subject, and this cannot be considered as creative
art, as the composer Laurence Rosenthal says about the music. Becket
was not a Saxon since both his parents were of Norman extract and his
father was a London merchant. Luckily this film adaptation cuts off the
Saracen mother, yet the music and the singing of Gwendolyn introduces
another anachronism: the song is in Welsh, that is to say in a Celtic
dialect and not in Saxon at all, though originally, historically it
could only be in English (if English could already be considered as
existing) or in French. There is an antagonistic situation in England
at the time: the social antagonism between the merchants and the
nobles. Thomas Becket was not a nobleman, nor a baron, but he was the
son of a merchant. Anouilh replaced this social antagonism with an
ethnic opposition: it is wrong though I do not pretend it is entirely
false. Yet fifty years later the Saxon and Norman barons will unite
with the church as a whole against the king (the younger brother John
known as Landless of the eldest son of Henry II, presented as Henry III
in the film) to impose the Magna Carta. The film has a tremendous
advantage over the text of the play: it visualizes the meaning with
real settings. The splendor of the situations and the court can be
seen, though the director, and probably producer never insisted in
doing an epic film. So things remain moderate and contain no battle
whatsoever. Now the film explains the whole situation as a conflict
between the Saxons and the Normans as basic for the conflict between
the church and the crown. This is historically false. The conflict is
between royal power and church power. The king is trying to impose
royal justice and tax paying to the church. He will succeed as for tax
paying thanks to Becket himself when Chancellor but he will fail as for
justice, at least partly. The repentance and penance of the King is
determined politically but not so much as a conflict between once again
the Saxons and the Normans, but as the result of a conflict between
Eleanor of Aquitania, the Queen, and her son Henry III, the eldest son
who had been crowned before the death of his father by his father's
decision. These two were trying to set up a rebellion against the king
to seize power. But the film is also badly historically informed in the
fact that the pilgrimage started before the king's penance (Friday July
12, 1174) and the sanctification was the Pope's decision and once again
before the king's penance, on Ash Wednesday February 21, 1173. These
mistakes are of course in the play and are Jean Anouilh's. In fact they
are not mistakes. They are rewriting history by Anouilh in order in
1959 to satisfy his own personal desires in Paris. He was probably
thinking of Poland, Hungary and even Algeria in the late 1950s more
than of England in the twelfth century. These subtleties could easily
go through in Broadway New York, 1962, but they could have been
slightly modified for the film, and they were indeed by dropping the
Saracen mother for example: they could have been more. Then the film
insists on the love Henry feels for Thomas and here again Anouilh
tricks everyone by making that love excessive, even in a way
suspicious, and yet based on something historians are quite doubtful
about: the real common interest in and sharing of good cheer, wine and
women. The acting of Peter O'Toole makes that love become little by
little hysterical which is a rather surprising mistake: it could be
somber, inwardly contemplative, but not jealous and uncontrolled as it
is shown here. It would have been frowned upon at the time, and a lot
more than in the film from the Queen Mother and the Queen. The film
though minimizes the austere life of the archbishop, though it could
have rebalance this element that is definitely made minimal by Anouilh
and this deprives us of an explanation as for the sudden change of
attitudes of brother John. Note he is a Saxon monk and here Anouilh
could have insisted on the fact that Becket was the first archbishop
who opposed the Barons who recaptured their Saxon serfs when they
escaped into some religious order or monastery. The film is very good
indeed but it has all the defects of the play behind it, justly
corrected of the most salient elements that were quite absurd at times.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine & University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne
The film looks sumptuous and has excellent period music; and Peter
O'Toole, Richard Burton, Donald Wolfit, John Gielgud and others in the
The story of the friendship between the King and Thomas Becket starts when they are a couple of roaring drunks, whoring and cursing their way around the town. Becket, a Saxon despised by most of Henry's court, becomes Lord Chancellor of England and eventually Archbishop of Canterbury, a role he first does not want but eventually takes seriously enough to jeopardise his exalted position with the King.
The leads are a bit too young but I have no quibbles with the acting. This is a film with power, fire, and many quiet and beautiful moments, particularly in the characterisation of Becket himself.
O'Toole would come back to the role of Henry for 'The Lion in Winter' a few years later.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole are great. Beckett is great. But the
movie would have been much better had the roles been reversed.
Why? Mostly because of physical appearances. Both actors could obviously play the roles they had. But the blond Peter O'Toole should have been Becket and the darker Richard Burton -- Henry II.
I know that Peter O'Toole gave a performance of a lifetime for an older Henry II later --- Lion in Winter -- one of his many performances of a lifetime. But anyway.
Also Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor public marriages and breakups, etc. lead me to believe that the public would have loved him as Henry II, a womanizer.
Oh well whatever.
I saw the film when I was 12 twice and since then, I did not see it around any more. It is sad that formative films like this one are not seen by youths of today. I liked it very much because I had the impression I was in a theatre; such was the focusing on the main characters and the relaxed shooting of scenes, that you could not go without being stunned by Richard Burton's (Thomas Becket) and Peter O'Toole (the King of England) magnificent interpretations. It is a film on power and command, sense of duty and responsibility, attachment to onw's own work, friendship and the supremacy of State affairs, human maturation and persistence, values often disregarded by today's school training.
Peter O'Toole (King Henry II), Richard Burton (Becket), and John Geilgud (King Louis VII) deliver three astonishing performances in this epic story. Richard Burton's transformation from bureaucrat to religious martyr is amazing. That last scene where he is murdered while all he seems to care about is the young person there is greatly acted. He clearly deserved to win Best Actor for his role in "Becket". His transformation is remarkable. John Geilgud injects a potentially boring character with so much wit and humor it is a pure joy to watch. His English Channel remark is laugh out loud funny. A truly great performance that showed his capacity for comedy. Peter O'Toole was the third best. O'Toole is so torn about what to do it practically leaps off the screen. One of the best historical movies ever. The script is brilliant.
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