BECKET
© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Peter O'Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as © 2007
MPI Media Group

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.


Rating:             B-
MPAA Rating:    None
Running time:   148 mins.

    Viewed at Film Forum