“Becket” is a terrific example of the historical play or novel turned into a cinematic drama crackling with whip-smart dialogue. I imagine actors must go mad with delight when they read a script that has page after page of dialogue this good. This sort of film was very popular mid-century, though it’s fallen out of favor with studios and audiences over the last 40 years.
Peter O’Toole is King Henry II of England, and Richard Burton is Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s based on a French play by Jean Anouilh, adapted for the screen in an Oscar-winning screenplay by Edward Anhalt, and directed by Peter Glenville, who also helmed the original stage version.
Despite a nearly three-hour run time, the plot is extraordinarily straightforward and simple. Henry is the power-mad king who wants to subjugate the mighty Church of England to his will. His greatest ally in this is his friend Thomas Becket, whom he appoints Chancellor to enforce the king’s will in wresting property taxes from the church.
When one of the bishops points out that this has never been done before, Henry bellows, “I’ve never been this poor before!!”
This exchange is typical of O’Toole’s performance, whose Henry has a slithery charm that can suddenly erupt into volcanic expulsions of blind fury. Henry is a boor who loves drinking, hunting and wenching more than ruling. But he’s smart enough to recognize that Becket is smarter than himself, and all of his enemies.
In one scene Henry muses that Becket, if he were on the side of his opponents, would be just as ruthless and efficient in his political maneuvering. Becket concedes the point, saying that he takes pride in performing his duties, whatever they may, to the best of his capabilities.
This proves Henry’s undoing, when the Archbishop dies and he picks Becket to be his successor — despite not even being an ordained priest. 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 that will lead to the verge of the entire country of England being excommunicated.
Henry loves Becket, as perhaps he adores no other human being in his life, and it hurts him to the core that Becket chooses honor over their friendship.
As played by Burton, Becket is a self-aware man who is cognizant of his own limitations. As a Saxon who serves and befriends a Norman monarch, he is man apart with no home of his own. Henry’s barons dismiss him as a “Saxon dog,” and a young Saxon monk tries to assassinate him for betraying his people.
He believes himself incapable of loving or being loved, which is why he throws himself with such zeal into whatever endeavors are placed before him. When Henry takes Becket’s mistress, Gwendolen, as his sexual plaything, the rift between them takes root. She stabs herself through the heart rather than be separated from Becket.
Glenville directs with an ostentatious hand, and his scenes inside the grand churches and castles occasionally drag on as he lingers too much over processions in ornate costumes passing before stunning sets. But mostly he lets these two amazing actors have free rein, and the results are often glorious.
The only downside of watching “Becket” is realizing how impossible it would be to get such a movie made today.
As is often the case with historical fiction, much of the actual record is muddied or altered.
For example, the central conceit of the film — that Becket was a Saxon who became the king’s confidante — is false. All historical evidence indicates he was a Norman. Playwright Jean Anouilh was supposedly told of his massive inaccuracy before the play opened, but essentially shrugged his shoulders and decided he liked the story the way it was.
Also, the movie portrays the previous Archbishop, Theobald, as being appalled at Becket’s appointment as chancellor. In point of fact, he was Becket’s mentor and the one who recommended him to the king.
Interestingly, the roles of Becket and Henry were originally played by Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn onstage. But when it came time for the film, the producers decided they were too old. The younger, more handsome pair of Burton and O’Toole were brought in to pretty things up. In actuality, Olivier and Quinn were much closer to the actual ages of the real men in question.
O’Toole would go on to play Henry II again in 1968’s “The Lion in Winter,” set years later in his life when the aging king is beset by his ambitious sons. (Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, then whippersnappers, portrayed Richard the Lionheart and King Philip, respectively.) O’Toole received Oscar nominations for both turns as Henry — part of his pool of eight nods without ever winning (though he did receive an honorary statuette).