When it’s on: Monday, 4 April (1.15 pm)
The first of two 1960s films covering the life and times of Henry II and starring Peter O’Toole as one of England’s most important kings, Becket stands as cracking medieval drama. Like its ‘not really, but it could be’ sequel, The Lion in Winter, Becket was adapted from a stage play, actually a French play, and noteworthy was the amount of licence used in pulling away from historical accuracy. The main point of contention was the film’s assertion that Henry was a Norman and Thomas Becket a Saxon, throwing in a key note of tension as William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England set up an apparently divided country of ruling Normans and downtrodden Saxons that played well in Hollywood versions of the time. In reality, Becket was as Norman as they came whilst Henry was from the Anjou region of France, an Angevin whose territories on the continent added further chunks of what would become the French nation to England.
The Norman-Saxon element is ever present in Becket, but far more important is the personal relationship between Henry and Becket, the deep friendship that turns to enmity once the latter is handed the Archbishopric of Canterbury and sets up a dividing line between the two real powers in England – that of king and church. Henry’s belief that giving Becket the job will put his strongest ally in the most powerful job within the clergy and therefore bend it to his will turns to ruin. Against the odds, Becket finds God. In doing so, he becomes the church’s staunchest defender and aligns himself in political opposition to Henry. Their argument, over the incident of a priest being killed by Lord Gilbert rather than handed over to ecclesiastical justice, boils over into a personal feud as neither side is prepared to back down. Using the full fury of royal power, Henry eventually forces Becket to go on the run, to France and thence to the Pope, all the while lamenting the loss of his best friend and fellow lad and in private cheering Becket’s spirit. The story boils to its well known conclusion, the king drunkenly sanctioning the dispatch of his ‘meddlesome priest’ before really regretting it.
Becket was unavailable for many years before being painstakingly restored and rereleased during the previous decade. Technically it’s a marvel, much of the film’s budget going on a titanic reconstruction of Canterbury Cathedral so well designed that it’s virtually impossible to imagine the action is taking place anywhere other than the actual site. To all intents and purposes the crew transported back in time to thirteenth century England, a shift away from previous visions of the era as a pastoral and rural idyll to show it as austere, dark and dirty. Even the king, who would have enjoyed the highest living standards, is in relative squalor. You imagine a film like Becket, which was very popular, blowing apart forever the chocolate box representation of Ye Olde England as it had been depicted in The Adventures of Robin Hood and copied since, because this version was simply truer.
It really works on the performances of its two leads, Richard Burton’s Becket and Peter O’Toole as Henry. Burton was at the time one of the world’s biggest stars thanks to the previous year’s Cleopatra and his relationship with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. After Lawrence of Arabia O’Toole’s star was also in the ascendancy and it was his complicated, multi-layered performance that made him an ideal choice for the capricious Henry, a role he had in fact previously wanted on the stage before he was offered the part of T.E. Lawrence. Burton, top billed as the eponymous meddlesome priest, has the tough sell of conveying Becket’s spiritual transformation, a difficult thing to convey in the modern, secular age and something the play struggled to depict convincingly. What Burton does, however, is portray his character as a man of conviction from the start, working both as a friend to the king and operating behind the scenes to smooth over his many caprices, as in the scene where he deals with the peasant girl. When told by Henry that he’s going to be the next Archbishop, Becket begs him to reconsider – he knows that doing the job will place him in opposition. Sure enough, no sooner has he donned the robes of office that he starts taking his duties very seriously, defending the church and even discovering his own spirituality. It’s not long before he’s clashing with the monarch, but it’s consistent with Becket’s entire approach to life and it’s something he understands will happen exactly as it does. It’s the essential difference between Henry and Becket. The former, a young king, has been used to getting everything his own way and thinks of the world in terms of bending it to his will. Becket embraces a wider view, sees it from the perspective of the people and realises just what heading the church involves. His is a tragic story, one in which he turns to God because it’s the logical route to turn to a greater power for help and support.
Burton plays his character with complete conviction, a real sense of steel-eyed purpose, and makes it work. That he is ultimately overshadowed by O’Toole is that the king gets all the best lines and despite everything is a likeable and playful monarch. Henry’s struggle against Becket is a dichotomy – he loves him on a personal level and cheers him on even though officially the Archbishop’s struggle is against him. Other moments, his saving of the peasant girl for Becket even after the latter has privately kept her away, show his basic lack of understanding for his friend. He just wants Becket to be his pal, but on his own terms, and when he’s rejected it becomes dangerous because he’s a king and he can call on all manner of earthly forces to manifest his anger. O’Toole plays Henry as a force of nature, using his position to say exactly what he thinks, often to ruinous effect, sparing no one the barb of his tongue. The way he talks to his family, presented as duplicitous and critical, is simultaneously hilarious and horrible. And there’s a lovely consistency in his character from this film to The Lion in Winter, where the older Henry is shown as being prepared to start his dynasty all over again because the current one isn’t working to his liking.
Brilliant, complex work from both actors, beautifully written – Edward Anhalt won an Oscar for his screenplay, though the film’s further eleven nominations did not end in awards – and performed. O’Toole revealed that the tight shooting schedule was beneficial due to the months he’d spent beforehand rehearsing his role, getting the nuances of his character just right, and it helped that he and Burton became good drinking buddies whilst on set together. It’s a very well acted film featuring a string of solid to good supporting performances, notably John Gielgud as a camp and cool-minded French king, and David Weston as the monk who falls wholeheartedly for Becket’s show of faith, sticking with him to the end. Becket is an intelligent and altogether engrossing couple of hours, bookended by marvellous work from its two lead actors.