Becket (Paramount, G)

becket2It is worth watching these two fill up the full silver screen now, rather than just settling for the home video experience in a few months.




becketIn theatrical re-release before its long-overdue debut on DVD in May, the 1964 historical drama Becket again graces screens in St. Louis, displaying the prowess of its two leading men, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. The film chronicles the relationship between O'Toole's King Henry II, one of Britain's most vigorous medieval kings, and his drinking buddy Burton's Thomas Becket. Henry raises his seemingly ambitionless old friend Becket to be Lord Chancellor of England, then, to spite the Church, makes him Archbishop of Canterbury, lead prelate in England. Much to Henry's unwelcome surprise, Becket sides with the Church becoming a formidable foe to his former friend. An off-hand remark by the king sends four knights eager to please their liege off to murder Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, in a betrayal and execution that still echo down the ages.

Based on the stage play by prolific French playwright and screenwriter Jean Anouilh, Becket is of a piece with similar 1960's theatrical adaptations, especially A Man for All Seasons and Lion in Winter (where O'Toole reprises his role as Henry, this time fighting off his squabbling princelings and their mother, Katherine Hepburn as the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine), and, like those others, it won for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. Its strongest points are the excellent dialogue and the performances of the two leads as they show Henry and Becket's slowly dissolving friendship and the simultaneous awakening of Becket's resolve and belief in the Church's position.

In many ways the film is a mirror image of A Man for All Seasons. In it, Henry VIII appoints his friend Thomas More as Lord Chancellor to ease his difficulties with the Church. Henry knows he is getting a capable, incorruptible man, who he thinks he can hold in line with him (and against the pope) by the force of his will and their friendship. Ever the resolute rock, More stays true to himself and his church and loses his life for it. In Becket, Henry II chooses Becket because he is irresolute, incapable and aimless, and Henry assumes he won't need to hold him in line at all. One can only imagine what Becket thought of his life if it flashed before him when he was murdered in the Cathedral. How did he get from king's inner circle, making love to women on silk sheets, to a dying at his friend's command (albeit accidental) and wearing a monk's repentant hairshirt beneath his robes?

The casting could not have been better. When Lawrence Olivier and Anthony Quinn opened the stage version of Becket, they swapped roles after a few weeks. With the film, one can't imagine the actors changing roles. O'Toole is in turn feckless and ruthless, dissolute and resolute, the bully and the wimp, exactly what one imagines of an ambitious prince raised high above the filth of medieval life, then set loose on the land as its ruler. His long, sloping, sad features are perfect for the role. On the other hand, Burton is simply an empty vessel. Whether wenching and drinking, or parading around in pomp and ceremony, one looks in Burton's eyes and he simply is not there. I recently caught The Longest Day-the 1962 D-Day epic-and he displays the same quality there as an RAF officer pondering his doom and that of his squadron; the same quality as in the later parts of Cleopatra as Marc Antony. It all changes as he adopts the mantle of protector of the church. He suddenly has something to believe in and it transforms his character and his performance

As for the rest of the film, despite a fine restoration job, the film looks flat-perhaps it is too many bare stone walls in too many Norman castles; perhaps it is the claustrophobia of too many interior scenes one after another (it was a play, after all). While the dialogue and performances crackle, the direction is similarly flat and predictable, call it mid-'60s adapted theatrical. While the director, Peter Glenville, was nominated for an Oscar for his work here, it is more telling that he won four Tony Awards. His sensibilities are clearly better suited for the stage.

All in all, it is a delight to see two of the great actors of their generation at the height of their young careers fighting each other for mastery of the screen. It is worth watching these two fill up the full silver screen now, rather than just settling for the home video experience in a few months. | Joe Hodes


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