Becket (1964)

When it’s on: Monday, 4 April (1.15 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

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.

Becket: ****

Troy (2004)

When it’s on: Sunday, 4 January (9.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

First there was Gladiator, then came The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and suddenly it was fashionable to make big budget epic films once again. Not an unhappy development for this writer, who grew up loving the likes of El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, with their lengthy running times, lavish sets, gorgeous locations and casts of thousands. There had always been ‘epic’ films that drew on stories from the past for their inspiration, though their heyday was in the 1950s, when the impact of the HUAC blacklistings and the attempt to drag viewers from their TV screens and back into theatres led to movies built on spectacle and featuring strong, moral heroes. When these films started to fail at the box office, though, so their demise hastened, the massive investment in them becoming a considerable risk as their budgets had the potential to ruin entire studios. It was only with Gladiator that the possibilities CGI of replacing the millions spent on extras, set designs and costumes were realised. Instead of building large-scale recreations of the Roman forum, you now had the capacity to generate them from a computer. Vast numbers of extras, which found their ultimate expression in the employment of the Soviet Union army dressed in Napoleonic era uniforms for the ruinous Waterloo, could now be rendered digitally.

The success of Ridley Scott’s Roman flick, both critically and in ticket sales, ensured further forays into the past, and Troy, made for a considerable $175 million by Wolfgang Petersen. In the grand epic tradition, Troy assembled a cast of big names, followed a sweeping narrative based on the events of the Trojan War (and is very loosely derived from Homer’s The Iliad) and put thousands of computer generated combatants in the field against each other. The film did well enough at the box office to be considered a sound commercial success, despite its violent content ensuring a ’15’ rating in the UK; critically it faced something of a battering. Naysayers highlighted its lack of faith to Homer, the excising of the impact of the Greek Gods on what happens, its dodgy acting, its absence of dramatic weight, the suggestion that it was, in reality, a showcase for stars like Brad Pitt.

The story opens with the Trojan princes, Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom), in Sparta to negotiate a peace treaty with King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). Returning home, Hector discovers that his younger brother has spirited away Menelaus’s young wife, Helen (Diane Kruger), which is the lever for full-scale war between Troy and the Greek city states, united under Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Of course, Menelaus’s anger is just the trigger as far as the power mad Agamemnon is concerned; he just wants an excuse, any excuse, to invade, and sure enough the thousand ships are soon launched across the Aegean. The wildcard for Greece is Achilles (Pitt), its greatest warrior but a brooding and insolent presence, wanting little to do with his leader’s megalomania but unable to resist the chance for glory in battle. Also in the Greek ranks is Odysseus (Sean Bean), Achilles’s sole ally amongst the leadership and carrying a reputation for coming up with cunning plans. The Trojans, in the meantime, prepare for a war they know is surely coming. Their king, Priam (Peter O’Toole), balances the grounded advice offered by Hector against the more bombastic predictions of the Gods, as mouthed by his priests. Soon after, the Greeks are at the walls, but the superior Trojan defences and Achilles’s unwillingness to be drawn into battle and possibly turn the tide in Agamemnon’s favour ensures the struggle will become a long, bloody and drawn out affair…

Though the film features many figures from history, and gives most just enough screen time to lend them the sort of one-dimensional characterisation that makes them unmemorable and lacking in any depth (Agamemnon is GREEDY, Paris is VAIN, etc), there’s sufficient exploration of Achilles to hint at someone with divided loyalties and gaps in his search for happiness. Pitt does all right with the material. A handsome man with enough charisma to head the cast, Pitt suggests a tormented Achilles, long since tired of his killing machine abilities and capable of finding peace when he falls in love with priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne). That said, the film is unable to convince us that Pitt is anything other than Brad Pitt playing a part. It does better with Eric Bana, who brings real presence to the screen as the noble Hector and whose tortured countenance gives the impression that he knows Troy’s number is most likely up, especially when arguing for a moderate approach to the Greek attacks that are met with resistance by a divinity-obsessed Priam.

Troy marked the beginning of Orlando Bloom’s decline as a potential leading man. I’ve always thought the accusations that he can’t act to be unfair, though it’s certain he lacks the sort of command needed to breathe life into such a pivotal character as Paris. Diane Kruger was better known as a model before appearing in this film and is obviously ravishing, though it’s hard to imagine her looks alone being sufficient to elicit one of the most heralded conflicts in history. As for Peter O’Toole, he gets one of the best scenes in the film when he appears in Achilles’s tent to beg for the return of his son’s body. Suddenly, the one-note characterisation falls away and Priam is exposed as a desolate and imploring father. A shame there isn’t more room for this kind of human drama.

But there isn’t, and that’s the overall problem with Troy. There’s a sense that the characters are pieces on a chessboard; in The Iliad that’s pretty much what they were, moved at the whims of the Gods, but here they serve the needs of the plot and you’re never sure who to cheer for, or indeed for whom you should care. Both sides have their heroes and villains. Pitt turns Achilles into such an anti-hero that it’s difficult to be fully engaged in either his struggle or romantic sub-plot. Bloom fails completely to fill the vacuum left by Bana’s Hector. Titanic armies clash, but often the results are inconclusive enough to remove any heft; all those people who die for nothing, though obviously they aren’t really people at all, just sprites created in some CGI laboratory. One tussle ends abruptly with the unfortunate death of a minor character; really, that would happen? Besides which, I’ve always struggled with battles that open with two enormous massed armies charging at each other from the off, when even a tiny knowledge of military tactics would lead to awareness that they didn’t happen like this at all.

Overall, Troy is a film that just happens, simply retreading the plot with obvious characters who perform exactly as you’d expect. There’s a director’s cut available that I haven’t seen, which apparently adds enough to flesh out the characters and bring the film to life, and this is something I witnessed for myself in the extended version of Kingdom of Heaven. Theatrically it was all a bit thin, curious for a film that told such a dramatically weighty story and contained so many important characters. It’s entirely meaningless, and it should have been anything but that.

Troy: **

The Lion in Winter (1968)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 30 May (3.00 am, Thursday)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

In my time I’ve known contessas, milkmaids, courtesans and novices, whores, gypsies, jades, and little boys, but nowhere in God’s western world have I found anyone to love but you.

As a History graduate, I find it sad and surprising that Henry II doesn’t rank amongst the leading English monarchs for study. Perhaps it’s the fact that Henry spoke French. Maybe it’s the lack of a Shakespeare play on his life, or possibly it’s because his reign took place so very long ago, but anyone wishing to cover an endlessly fascinating time in medieval history would get it all with Henry Plantagenet. A man with boundless levels of both energy and rage, the King ruled an empire that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, making him the leading European, secular figure of his age. His longstanding legacy was his reform of justice in England, yet he’s best known for his involvement of the murder of his friend and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

That’s the subject of another film, Becket, which by a coincidence that guarantees a semblance of continuity also starred Peter O’Toole as Henry. The Lion in Winter concerns itself with the King’s later years, when his life was dominated by family squabbles. His marriage to the older Eleanor of Aquitaine added an enormous slab of land in western France to his holdings, yet their partnership was undermined by a series of kingly bits on the side, which led Henry’s wife to scheme and plot in order to advance their sons’ claims over his rule. As for the sons, history records them in a somewhat less than favourable light. Eternally leading revolts against their father, recruiting various lords to their causes and with Eleanor pulling strings behind the scenes. What a bunch. Henry’s longevity made things more frustrating for his offspring and it’s this degree of tension that’s captured in The Lion in Winter.

O’Toole returns as an older and more cynical King. He’s worn down by his sons’ machinations and has resorted to keeping Eleanor under lock and key. Christmas in Chinon gives them an opportunity to get together and bury the hatchet, but by and into whom is yet to be revealed. The actor was fifteen years younger than the 50-year old King he played, but this allowed him to accurately get across Henry’s energy. He was younger still than Katharine Hepburn, who was hired for the role of Eleanor. In an example of casting that fit like a glove, Hepburn was a perfect choice – beautiful, clever and still in thrall to Henry, despite his professed love for Alais (Jane Merrow), the French princess who is intended for one of the sons yet becomes the King’s mistress. For the remaining roles, stage actors were chosen – Anthony Hopkins played Richard, John Castle was Geoffrey, John was taken on by Nigel Terry. A fresh-faced Timothy Dalton played the young French king, Philip. Both Dalton and Hopkins were making their screen debuts.

Based on James Goldman’s play (Goldman also produced the film’s screenplay), The Lion in Winter is literary, favouring words over action. Long scenes take place in which people talk to each other, but it’s the things they say and the circumstances that matter. Henry’s sons are, to a man, instantly disownable. Spiteful, antagonistic towards each other and their father and continually vying for power and favour, they’re an awful brood. John is Henry’s favourite, but only because he appears the most docile and least likely to cause him grief. The warlike Richard turns out to be a mummy’s boy, a gay lover of Philip’s and wholly disinterested in anything that takes place off the battlefield. Geoffrey, apparently out of the running for the kingship, seems content to sit back and play Chancellor to the best candidate, but he’s the most dangerous and assiduous of the terrible trio.

At its heart, the film is really about the fractured relationship between Henry and Eleanor. The pair spar verbally like old pros, but there’s affection also and mutual understanding, which relates to a past in which they were obviously crazy about each other. The script and Anthony Harvey’s intelligent direction get the characters just right. Eleanor really was that worldly, the consummate survivor with similar levels of inner strength and fragility. Even at 50, Henry was still a ball of energy, willing to incarcerate an entire family that sickened him in favour of starting all over again. As good is the depiction of the medieval world as a place of muck and darkness. The King kicks chickens out of the way as he enters his castle. His clothes aren’t the multi-coloured splendour one might expect of royalty. This is a lived in Chinon, a city of stone and shit that makes one wonder the states of squalor the peasantry had to look forward to.

The Lion in Winter won three Oscars, for Hepburn, Goldman, and John Barry’s score. The latter, incorporating monastic choruses with Barry’s traditional, brass-heavy overtures to sublime effect, is a thing of utter beauty. The main theme plays over shots of cathedral grotesques and is heavy with portent, but the real joy is perhaps the music that accompanies Eleanor’s arrival in Chinon, a melancholic piece that hints at her former loveliness and the wasted years she’s put in.

 

The Lion in Winter: *****