Movie Review – Becket (1964)
by NIR SHALEV
King Henry II of England surprises the country by naming his best friend Thomas Becket, a Saxon, as Chancellor, one of the most important positions in the English government. This is shocking because the king and the nobility are Normans; commoners and clergy are Saxons. What it means is that Becket now bears a ring that holds power over the country of England and that the king trusts a Saxon to rule over the Church. Henry doesn’t hate the Church for religious reasons, but he despises their need to rule over everything. They do not believe in equilibrium so he figures that if anyone is going to rule the country it should be the monarch.
Becket is about the power struggle between king and church and the friendship between two powerful men. Although it is set in the “age of chivalry” we immediately notice that this is not a film about war and chivalry, but a film about character and what it truly takes to rule a country and still maintain fellowships.
In the film’s beginning, Henry is in need of money and he looks to the Church as a source of funds. They begin to quarrel and Henry begins throwing insults. It’s performed through hilarious pomp and not through a stern drama. Becket is then entrusted with the Chancellor’s ring and Henry performs the ceremony in front of the Church’s representatives to showcase that he prefers his friends, even Saxon friends, over men of the cloth.
Throughout the first act, we see Henry plucking daughters from the villagers and turning them into wenches, and insulting the Church in his free time; we notice that Becket is growing distant. The second act kicks off with a bang. Becket counsels Henry that if Canterbury receives an archbishop it would mean two men of power vying for control of the country and that eventually only one of them would survive. He tells Henry that the Church would win. Therefore, Henry concocts a brilliant scheme: he bestows upon Becket the position of Archbishop of Canterbury so that the King would rule over the people and that his best friend would rule over the Church.
Before receiving the archbishopric Becket implores Henry not to make the decision. “Your Majesty, I beg you. Do not do this.” Becket says this to his best friend and king because he foresees a gross conflict of interest.
Becket takes his new position seriously and actually caters to its cause. He becomes a devout Catholic and helps “the people” with their problems. Henry cannot conceive as to why Becket would betray him and actually support the cause of the Church and a battle of wits develops. Henry must eventually choose whether to make the ultimate sacrifice: to destroy his former best friend and live in loneliness forever or to give up power and control as the monarch.
Director Peter Glenville teams two of the best English film and theater actors of the 20th century: Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket. It’s hard to decide which of the actors delivers a better job because the king is the embodiment of pomp and hilarity and Becket, with a hard stare and always speaking the truth, is his “best friend” and confidant. Yet both actors play their characters with total conviction. One would wonder how they were friends to begin with seeing from afar that they are opposites.
Becket is based on the popular Broadway play and we can feel the presence of professional stage actors with O’Toole and Burton. The film’s cinematography has many wide shots that allow the actors the freedom to stretch their arms and pace about while delivering witty rhetoric and bantering about friendship and betrayal. Richard Burton is my favorite British actor yet I cannot claim that he outshines O’Toole. O’Toole’s performance is comic but tragic. O’Toole’s delivery of lines is perfect for comedic purposes; Henry is almost always yelling, even when he’s hungry. But when we analyze the meanings of his words we realize how troubled the king truly feels.
Burton’s troubled Becket is complex and truthful; he always feels the social backlash from having been born a Saxon. By accepting the position of archbishop his side is chosen but he doesn’t show his feelings about stabbing Henry, his friend in the back. Like an actor always remaining in character, Becket plays the martyr to the end; ending his friendship with his king and at the same time reminding him of the truth he had spoken of all those years ago.
The historical Thomas Becket is one of if not the most famous of the English saints. He was declared a saint and martyr by the Church after he was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 by a group of nobles loyal to the king. In the historic perspective we understand that he had finally found his place with God and the Church and had stuck with it to the end, friendship left behind though with regret.
But in the film we see that Becket became a martyr mostly as a fulfillment of his early prediction to his king. Henry was very intelligent and we know this because he had lived to an old age as a king in tempestuous times. In a later part of the film, Henry asks four of his best knights, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” That’s the king performing his duty to uphold his power over the country. But earlier in the film we hear him say, “But thank you for this last gift as you desert me. Now I shall learn to be alone.” That’s the king’s acknowledgment of what the future holds and his preparation for loneliness, because his brain understands what Becket had done before his heart does.
This is a very intellectual and philosophical film that was honored with twelve Academy Award nominations including a Best Actor nod to both O’Toole and Burton. But just like a few years earlier when West Side Story (1961) won all the awards against Judgment at Nuremberg and The Hustler, another popular musical, My Fair Lady, won almost every category in 1964 except Best Adapted Screenplay, which was awarded to Becket.
O’Toole and Burton are at the top of their game with powerful and entertaining performances of complex, larger-than-life characters in a tale that comes down simply to friendship, honor, and listening attentively to your friends.