Becket (1964)
Becket (1964)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 28 min.

Release Date: March 11th, 1964 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Peter Glenville Actors: Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Sian Phillips, Gino Cervi, Paolo Stoppa, Donald Wolfit, Pamela Brown, Felix Aylmer, Veronique Vendell

 


 

I

n 1066, William the Conqueror defeated the Saxons of Britain at the Battle of Hastings. His great grandson, King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), continued to rule over the oppressed Saxon peasants for a century, using the swords of his Barons and the power of his Norman clergy. “What a strange end to our story …” the king muses as he visits the tomb of archbishop Thomas Becket, who began as a dear friend, before becoming a mortal enemy. Curiously, this opening reveals the ultimate conclusion to Becket’s tale – something of a spoiler for those unfamiliar with his life, which, as the years pass, surely includes a greater and greater number of viewers.

Switching to a flashback, as a young nobleman, Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) – who was previously a wretched Saxon (and archdeacon) – regularly joins Henry in his escapades, particularly when it comes to drinking and wenching. When the king butts heads with the bishop and archbishop over tax exemptions, he revives the office of Chancellor of England, Keeper of the Lion Seal, appointing right-hand-man Becket to aid in the prominent post – primarily to use his educated articulation and reasoning to coerce the clergymen into relenting their position (much to the chagrin of the older spiritual overseers). Henry needs money to pay for a war against King Louis VII of France (John Gielgud) to retake lost towns, and the price won’t be cheap. “I’ve never been this poor before!”

Despite Becket’s ostensible allegiance to his master, it’s apparent that some sort of faithfulness to his Saxon heritage still lingers. When he has an opportunity for compassion toward the routed peasants, he takes it, which contrasts sharply with Henry’s predilection for cruelty and manipulation. This plays out deviously when it comes to love and women, particularly Becket’s companion Gwendolen (Sian Phillips), whose death brings about a rift in respect and duty that might never be mended. Additionally, Becket’s shrewdness, levelheadedness, and worldliness clash with Henry’s childishness, impetuousness, and constant need for counseling. “You’re the only man I can trust.”

As a period piece and costume drama, full of magnificent sets and countless extras, “Becket” certainly feels like an epic (it even possesses the lengthy running time). But as an adaptation of a play, it’s heavy with dialogue about religion, politics, and the machinations of corrupt power-players. It’s far more of a character study, dwelling on Becket’s balancing act of subservience to the crown and his escalating influence across the institutions of England, which could grant him the ability to craft justice for his people – even though he claims that feelings toward his ancestry are but a void.

In this vein, the film is comparable to “A Man for All Seasons,” which would arrive just two years later – and snag the Best Picture Oscar that eluded this highly acclaimed, widely lauded work (“Becket” was nominated for a whopping 12 Academy Awards). The struggle of divided loyalties also reminds of “The Robe” and “Ben-Hur,” as well as “The Lion in Winter,” which comparably use careful, intellectual (and occasionally humorous in a Shakespearean manner) conversations to highlight strained relationships overwhelmed by authoritative roles, as well as the sticky separations of church and state; for this, “Becket” would secure an Academy Award win for its screenplay by Edward Anhalt. Unfortunately, it progresses – somewhat slowly – with a certain predictability, perhaps hampered by the opening sequence, which previously revealed Becket’s fate.

Amid the chess-like political maneuvering and wavering fidelities of various associates, both the leaders of England and the leaders of the church are illustrated as petty, self-serving, vengeful, impatient, small-minded people, proffering no worthy protagonists. Even Becket himself rarely feels authentic; audiences might quietly hope for some grand revenge scheme to surface, but his flimsy embrace of the honor of God remains the primary driving force of contention. The utter absence of a romance subplot might also appear as unusual, further distancing the lead characters from easy sympathy. By the end, the phony rituals employed to appease the disgruntled citizenry similarly do little in the way of turning this story into something striking; it’s all a touch too simple and uninspiring, despite an undoubtedly wry script.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10