powered by AFI
Synopsis: In 12th century England, King Henry II appoints his loyal friend Thomas Becket to the position of Lord Chancellor and later Archbishop of Canterbury, hoping to strengthen the State's position over the Church. A rift develops between the two when Becket undergoes a spiritual transformation, gives up the chancellorship and challenges the King's views in areas such as the legal jurisdiction of state over the clergy. In retaliation, the King presses dubious charges against Becket, who is forced to seek refuge in France. Eventually returning to England but refusing any compromise, Becket is assassinated in the Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, at the instigation of the King.
Becket (1964), Peter Glenville's widely admired adaptation of the 1959 Jean Anouilh play, was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and ultimately won for Best Adapted Screenplay (Edward Anhalt). Unavailable for years, it has been restored by the by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the support of Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation. This restored version premiered in London in 2003 and new 35mm prints recently toured the U.S.
The chief reason to watch Becket today is its robust lead performances, especially by Peter O'Toole, who had just come from his Academy Award-nominated role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). With a scene of flagellation and his apparent homoerotic devotion to Thomas Becket, O'Toole's interpretation of Henry II in some ways parallels that of T. E. Lawrence, though in this film O'Toole's character is more calculating and crude.
O'Toole's interest in the role of King Henry II in fact preceded Lawrence. A member of Peter Hall's recently founded Royal Shakespeare Company, O'Toole was already in line to play the part in Hall's upcoming stage production of Becket when he was offered the more lucrative film role of T. E. Lawrence. Hall tried unsuccessfully to sue producer Sam Spiegel's Horizon Pictures and later refused to consider O'Toole for the stage role.
Hal Wallis, the producer who had spearheaded many of the finest Warner Brothers films of the Thirties and Forties, including Casablanca (1942), had moved over to Paramount by this time. He was already working on one film to be directed by Peter Glenville, an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke (1961), when he saw Glenville's staging of Becket in New York, starring Laurence Olivier as Becket and Anthony Quinn as Henry II. Glenville was a noted British stage director who had directed two feature films, The Prisoner (1955) and Me and the Colonel (1958), and a well-regarded Broadway production of Rashomon in 1959. Wallis retained Glenville as the director for the film adaptation of Becket, though he decided to go with younger actors in the lead roles. Not surprisingly, he had little difficulty persuading O'Toole to accept the part of Henry II.
Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton expressed great mutual respect in interviews and even became drinking buddies during the shoot. While they both had a reputation for living it up, initially they refrained from alcohol. Much to the consternation of the Paramount studio executives, their resolutions shortly fell by the wayside. In an interview recorded for the recently issued DVD, Ann Coates recalls that the meeting of Becket and King Henry II on the beach was particularly difficult to edit because they were unable to line up their horses in the proper direction, though they still managed to deliver performances of the highest caliber.
The French playwright Jean Anouilh (1910-1987) is best known for Antigone (1942), a modern interpretation of the Greek tragedy that was produced during the French Occupation and is sometimes interpreted as an allegory of resistance. Other notable works by Anouilh include the farce The Waltz of the Toreadors (1952) and the Joan of Arc play The Lark (1952). While unquestionably a great showpiece for its two main roles, Becket has not weathered particularly well as a play, at least in English-speaking countries. In fact, during the initial stage production some drama critics, most notably Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, expressed reservations about Anouilh's approach, especially how he handled Becket's spiritual transformation. The play was revived in London in 2004 in a production starring Dougray Scott and Jasper Britton, using a grittier and more colloquial translation by Frederic and Stephen Raphael, though similar criticisms still surfaced among many British drama critics. But regardless of the play's ultimate merit, it provides a memorable role in King Henry II, and O'Toole easily rises to the challenge.
Producer: Hal Wallis
Director: Peter Glenville
Screenplay: Edward Anhalt
Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Production Design: John Bryan
Art Director: Maurice Carter
Costume Design: Margaret Furse
Music Score: Laurence Rosenthal
Cast: Richard Burton (Thomas Becket), Peter O'Toole (King Henry II), John Gielgud (King Louis VII of France), Donald Wolfit (Gilbert Folliot, Bishop of London), Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), David Weston (Brother John), Martita Hunt (Queen Matilda), Pamela Brown (Queen Eleanor), Paolo Stoppa (Pope Alexander III), Gino Cervi (Cardinal Zambelli), Percy Herbert, Niall MacGinnis, Christopher Rhodes, Peter Jeffrey, Michael Miller, Peter Prowse (Henry II's barons), Inigo Jackson (Robert de Beaumont, Duke of Leicester), Sian Phillips (Gwendolen), Veronique Vendell (French Girl).
by James Steffen