The 1964 Hal Wallis production of BECKET earned a near record 12 Academy Award nominations, including two for Best Actor, for Richard Burton's performance in the title role. The movie marked the first time these two talented actors shared the screen (they would later both appear in the Dylan Thomas adaptation UNDER MILK WOOD). And for many years -- until 2007 -- the pair shared the dubious distinction of being the actors with the most Academy Award nominations (seven) without ever winning. All that changed when O'Toole earned his eight nod for what is perceived as his valedictory leading role in VENUS.
One of the joys for an audience is to see both of these men working in their prime. When this movie was filmed in the summer of 1962, O'Toole celebrated his 30th birthday, while Burton was 40. BECKET, which premiered in the spring of 1964, was an adaptation of a Jean Anouilh play that had starred Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier on Broadway. The play's director, Peter Glenville, made a rare foray into cinema (he only directed seven movies in his career).
As adapted by screenwriter Edward Anhalt (who ended up picking up the film's sole Oscar win), the film centers on the growing conflict between the king and his former friend whom he has appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury.
The movie opens with Henry arriving at Becket's tomb to willingly submit to a ritual whipping as penance for his role in the priest's murder. The story then flashes back to when both men were considerably younger and enjoying a more or less carefree life of wenching and drinking. But as the Norman Henry moves to consolidate his power over the Saxon clergy, he appoints his friend Becket, fully believing that he has the latter's loyalty.
What drives the story is Becket's conversion from a man without scruples to a man of principle and honor. He realizes he cannot serve Henry as chancellor and fulfill his duties as Archbishop and when he is forced by circumstances to make a choice -- Becket opts for honor, even going so far as to travel to Rome to seek a papal blessing.
The movie is nicely staged and the lead actors deliver strong performances, but there is something out of sync between the virile, macho posturing of O'Toole and Burton and the screenplay's homoerotic underpinnings. Several characters, including Henry's mother (a wonderful Martita Hunt) and his shrill wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (a miscast Pamela Brown) point out the "unnatural" aspects of the relationship between the men. Even the climactic reunion between the pair is staged as a sort of love scene, but neither actor plumbs that aspect of the story and script.
The large cast includes Sir Donald Wolfit as the corrupt Bishop of London, Siân Phillips (then Mrs. Peter O'Toole) as a woman loved by Becket and coveted by the king, David Weston as a monk opposed to Becket who comes to see him in a new light, and a delightfully amusing cameo appearance by Sir John Gielgud as King Louis VII of France.
BECKET has been restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and The Film Foundation under the supervision of Michael Pogorzelski, and is receiving a theatrical re-release before making its debut on DVD. The restoration enhances the terrific cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth, the production design of John Bryan, and the costumes of Margaret Furse, and the editing of the esteemed Anne V. Coates (who in her 80s is still actively working; her latest work was on the Jennifer Garner vehicle CATCH & RELEASE).
As with some films, BECKET was definitely a film of its time. To today's audience, the pace of the film might appear a bit slow, the inclusion of a subplot revolving around religion might seem almost quaint. Yet, the film does still have a certain power, thanks to its top notch cast. It's too bad that the actors didn't quite appreciate all the nuances in the script. But the film did serve as a warm-up for O'Toole who got to play Henry II again four years later in the film version of the Broadway hit THE LION IN WINTER, opposite Katharine Hepburn.