It's the mid-12th century and Normans have controlled England and its resident Saxons for two generations. The latest Norman leader, Henry II, has employed a Saxon, Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) to be his unofficial right-hand man. When he decides to make the title official, appointing Becket as chancellor, it only makes the already jealous Norman nobles and clergy angrier. When he goes even further and decides to quell an unruly church by appointing Becket as archbishop, it seems the nobles and clergy might revolt, but Henry finds that it is Becket, suddenly torn between his duty to King as chancellor and to God as archbishop, from whom he has the most to fear.
The film manages to explore two weighty themes without sacrificing attention to one for the other. We're presented with Becket's dilemma of how to combine "honor and collaboration," being both a Saxon complicit in the oppression of his own people and later a clergyman who, if he goes along with his old drinking buddy the King, will become complicit in the oppression of his own flock.
At the same time we're presented with Henry's conundrum, which resembles nothing so much as a scorned lover. The one man he felt he could trust not just as chancellor but as a friend has betrayed him, and he has nothing left to turn to but his own rage. Henry's narrative is the tragedy of the man who destroys the very thing he loves in hopes of restoring it.
The performances realize these tales of personal and public honor poignantly. Burton reveals his Becket in layers -- a cool customer who only over time realizes he cannot find honor because he cannot find anything he truly loves, and that includes Henry. His conversion from calculating consigliore for the King to devout champion for the Church seems as much about finding love as finding principle.
O'Toole earns every inch of his nomination with an aching portrayal of a man-child who doesn't want the good times to end but, having spent time with civilized, intellectual Becket, yearns for more than his court of buffoons can offer. Henry's crushed reaction to Becket sending a messenger instead of himself to respond to an affront speaks volumes through O'Toole's depiction.
The screenplay, adapted by Edward Anhalt from the play by Jean Anouilh, gives the actors plenty to work with. Hardly a minute passes without an eminently quotable line. On war with France, Becket advises his king, "A good occupational force must never crush. It must corrupt."
Peter Glenville's direction gives the players plenty of room to breathe, and even though dialogue is the film's greatest strength, it takes that as no excuse to skimp on the visuals, with stunning compositions by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth.
With a two-and-a-half hour run time and a plot that revolves around nothing sexier than monarchical/clerical conflict, Becket should be a stuffy bore, but it does what all great historical drama does; it finds what's compelling about that history and, more importantly, what's compelling about the people in that history. And, just to be on the safe side, it throws in two of the greatest actors of the day.
Run time: 148 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 11th March 1964
Distributed by: Slowhand Releasing
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures, Paramount Film Service, Keep Films
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Fresh: 19 Rotten: 6
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Peter Glenville
Producer: Hal Wallis
Screenwriter: Edward Anhalt
Starring: Richard Burton as Becket / Thomas Becket, Peter O'Toole as his King / King Henry II, John Gielgud as King Louis of France / King Louis VII of France, Gino Cervi as the Cardinal / Cardinal Zambelli, Paolo Stoppa as the Pope / Pope Alexander III, Donald Wolfit as Bishop Folliot, David Weston as Brother John, Martita Hunt as Empress Matilda, Pamela Brown as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Siân Phillips as Gwendolen, Felix Aylmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, Niall MacGinnis as Baron, Christopher Rhodes as Baron, John Phillips as Bishop of Winchester
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