2014 marked the 50th anniversary of Becket, the 1964 film classic based on Jean Anouilh’s play of the same title. Starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, it depicts the medieval world of England’s King Henry II who may be most notorious for imprisoning his “opinionated” wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.
However, his most heinous crime may be that he instigated the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered on the steps of the apse at Canterbury Cathedral by Henry’s henchmen. The King maintained throughout his life that he did not order the Archbishop’s murder. It is a fact of history that he felt at least partially responsible for his former friend’s death. This is the point at which the film’s flashback narrative begins with Peter O’Toole as Henry II, doing penance as he kneels before the tomb of Thomas Becket.
Countering O’Toole’s brilliant portrayal of King Henry as a drunken womanizer is Burton’s vivid portrayal of Becket. Next to these stellar performances, we are given superb cinematography accompanied by a musical score that is a tour-de force. The overall effect is blinding. Yet, as you become immersed in this movie, you do have to turn a blind eye to many facts of history. This is entertainment, not an artifact for the historical record.
It’s interesting that very little actually happens in this movie. It isn’t a film of action depicting battle scenes and intrigue at court. There’s very little fighting and gratuitous sex, but it doesn’t need all that extra hoopla. The dialogue is so finely tuned that we never doubt the King’s power or the Archbishop’s piety. While all subtlety is lost on O’Toole’s King Henry, we the viewers are transfixed by Burton’s skillfully nuanced spiritual awakening.
Before our eyes, a cold and ironic character who desires influence and power becomes the consummate priest engaged in a life of service. It’s quite a contrast to the profligate Chancellor whom King Henry has claimed as “my man” at Canterbury. By this, King Henry means that the powerful position can be in his control as long as Becket is Archbishop.
Yet Becket becomes anything but the King’s man. In a legal dispute, the King and the Archbishop come to an impasse. Becket out-maneuvers the King who becomes so enraged that he shouts at his courtiers: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The King’s henchmen take him seriously and think that he really does want the Archbishop dead, which leads to the assassination in the cathedral.
Aside from Burton and O’Toole as leading men, the film includes many highlights, including an unforgettable scene on the beach between King Henry and the Archbishop that will take your breath away. Then there’s that performance by Sir John Gielgud as King Louis of France; the Oscar-winning screenplay by Edward Anhalt. Study this script and you will get a master course in screenwriting 101. In addition to all of that, there is scintillating art direction, gorgeous costuming, magnificent set-design and on-location filming.
Becket is a 50-year-old film that holds up beautifully today. If there is anything dated about it, the highly stylized speech and delivery of the performances might be problematic for some viewers, but for most, this is a quality that adds to the experience. Get your hands on the DVD* or stream the movie over the internet for your next movie night. You won’t be sorry.
For more information about the actual events and characters of Becket, see “The Murder of Thomas Becket, 1170” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1997).
*NOTE: Clicking on the DVD photo above will take you directly to Amazon.