T.S. Eliot called it "Murder in the Cathedral." Jean Anouilh called it "Becket." Shakespeare would have called it "Henry II."Copyright 1992 Classic Photoplays Inc.
Sian Phillips, Richard Burton in Beckett.
Click photo for larger image.
Starring: Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, Martita Hunt, Pamela Brown.
Director: Peter Glenville.
Rating: PG in nature for violence and sexuality.
By any name, in any season, the epic struggle between a 12th-century English king and a courtier-turned-conscience of his realm makes for a majestic movie, currently -- and thankfully -- being re-released for the first time in 40-plus years.
The time: less than a century after the Norman conquest. The problem: high-spirited Henry II (Peter O'Toole) is having trouble with still-restive Saxons and church officials. Of great aid in both matters is his beloved drinking-and-wenching pal, Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), a wiser and cooler head than Henry's crowned one. When the troublesome Archbishop of Canterbury finally does him the favor of dying, Henry's bright idea for his replacement is Becket, a confidant loyal to Henry, not Rome.
But to the king's chagrin, Becket takes God and the job seriously.
Edward Anhalt took home the 1964 Oscar for best screenplay adaptation for "Becket" and deserved it. His script captures the full power of Anouilh's play, whose language is declaimed by Burton and O'Toole with mesmerizing eloquence.
"I have something far worse than a sin on my conscience," says Henry, with a perfect pause before, "... a mistake."
Few plays have been turned into films with such a love of words intact. Originally produced on Broadway in 1959 with Laurence Olivier as Becket and Anthony Quinn as King Henry, "Becket" contains one significant factual error: Contrary to one of its main plot lines, the real Thomas was a Norman, not a Saxon -- something Anouilh said he discovered only after finishing the play.
But never mind. It brings history to life with magnificent performances by the most exciting actors of the day. Of the two principles, it is O'Toole's dynamic rage rather than Burton's piety that is more riveting. Equally fine in support are John Gielgud as foppish Louis XII of France, along with Martita Hunt as Henry's mother and Pamela Brown as his carping wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, a pair of queens constantly beaten by the king's royal flush.
"Who are you?" shouts the King to his cowering young son.
"Henry III," the boy answers.
"Not YET!" the father retorts, later addressing the boy as "you witless baboon!"
Suffice to say, this is not the most functional of royal families.
"Becket" and its historical circumstances foreshadow the bigger case -- and church-state split -- to come, six Henries later, with another Thomas immortalized in another epic film: Fred Zinnemann's "Man for All Seasons" (1966) would pit Henry VIII against Sir Thomas More. Two years later, "Lion in Winter" (1968) allowed O'Toole to reprise Henry II opposite Katharine Hepburn as a much more formidable Eleanor.
If there's a better British history trilogy than this trio, I can't name it. It's one of many things to thank the much-maligned '60s for.
While we're doling out retro-thanks, let's thank the gorgeous Panavision cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth for the look of "Becket." The chance to enjoy it on a big screen again (at the Manor) is well worth sharing with your kids. Its 2 1/2 hours fly by, although you'll miss the nicety of an intermission, which was de riguer back in those salad days of its theatrical release.
Director Peter Glenville was a London and New York stage director, whose precious few films included a dull 1967 rendering of Graham Greene's "The Comedians," which inspired Bosley Crowther's shortest, cruelest, funniest-ever review: " 'The Comedians': Ha ha." After notices like that, you could see why Grenville swore off movie-making. But "Becket" is the (one and only) gem in his diadem.
The story's only "weak" point is a matter of historical accuracy: That catalytic issue on which Becket took his stand -- a jurisdictional dispute between ecclesiastical vs. civil court authority -- strikes us as not so terribly compelling in today's world of fast-and-loose creative judicial solutions. Why didn't Henry just declare Becket an anti-crown combatant and let him rot in the Tower of Londtanamo?
Becket and Henry represented nearly identical willfulness on opposite ends of the spectrum. "Humility is the most difficult of the virtues to achieve," wrote T.S. Eliot. "Nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself."
Post-Gazette film critic Barry Paris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .