March 3, 2010
Becket (1964)
Grade: 71/100

Director: Peter Glenville
Stars: Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, David Weston

What it's about. Based on a play by Jean Anouilh, which in turn was based on historical events. Set (mostly) in 12th century England. King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) is a mercurial man perpetually bent on consolidation of power. He dislikes his family, which consists of his aloof and smug mother (Martita Hunt), his equally cold wife (Pamela Brown), and their unruly and unpromising pre-teen sons, who show up as adult characters in The Lion in Winter (1968) which also stars O'Toole.

Fortunately, Henry has a good friend in Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), who accompanies him in his carousals and advises him in his schemes against the powerful clergy. Henry appoints Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Catholic Church in England, which he thinks will guarantee that the clergy will no longer oppose him.

Unfortunately, Becket takes his new duties to heart, and gets in a tiff with Henry over the rights of criminally charged priests. Becket is forced to flee to France, where he is welcomed by King Louis VII (John Gielgud), who delights in the turmoil Becket has caused in rival England. Becket also sees the Pope (Paolo Stoppa), who prefers a compromise solution. He also relegates Becket to a monastery, where Becket toils in obscurity with his favorite devoted monk John (David Weston).

But Becket tires of the monastery, and longs to mess with Henry's head again. So he returns to England, where he causes so much trouble for Henry that the latter effectively orders his loyal barons to assassinate Becket. This is not a spoiler, since the opening scene shows Henry before Becket's tomb.

How others will see it. Becket was well received by critics, and was a box office success. It remains well regarded today, although perhaps not so much as A Man for All Seasons (1966), which also depicted a battle of wills between a King Henry and a former court favorite. For Becket, the user ratings are highest among women over 45, who for an unknown reason give the film 9.0/10, significantly higher than the 8.1 that men award it.

Becket was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, losing in most categories to My Fair Lady and winning only for its adapted screenplay. Burton and O'Toole were both nominated as Best Actor, which split any votes and ensured that neither would win. Between them, Burton and O'Toole were eventually nominated for 15 Oscars, winning none, although O'Toole was given an honorary Oscar in 2003.

How I felt about it. A list of historical inaccuracies is usual, and I will not be amiss. The greatest blunder is that much is made of Becket's status as a Saxon, when he was in fact a Norman. Thus, Becket was never considered a traitor to his race. The film takes place a century after the successful 1066 invasion of England from France. The conquerers were Normans, and the oppressed Brits were Saxons.

Becket spent two years at the monastery, while he spends one scene (!) there in the movie. Henry's mother died three years prior to Becket's return to England. The real life Becket apparently excommunicated (the 12th century equivalent of a voodoo curse) many perceived enemies, and did not stop at Lord Gilbert.

But a film's worth is based more upon its credibility than its accuracy. Here there are minor problems. Henry prattles on about his love for Becket, who has "betrayed" him. He verbally abuses his mother, wife, and children, who could not care less. The Royal dialogue is entertaining, but seems contrived, although to a much lesser degree than in The Lion in Winter. The thing is, people who detest each other eventually stop speaking. Family conversation is not a competition for the invention of stinging insults.