Cast & Crew
In 12th-century England, King Henry II, descendant of Norman conquerors, is at odds with the church because he spends most of his time hunting, drinking, and womanizing with his Saxon friend Thomas Becket, who also advises him on matters of state. Antagonism between church and state mounts when the church refuses to allocate funds for Henry's battle with France. To tie Becket closer to his court, Henry makes him Chancellor of England, and from this position Becket fights the church on Henry's behalf. The two continue to rule England as steadfast friends until Henry impetuously demands payment for a past favor and asks for Becket's mistress, Gwendolen. The honor-bound Becket submits to the king's request, but Gwendolen takes her own life. Following the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry appoints Becket to the archbishopric, despite the protests of most of the clergy and Becket himself, who claims that he cannot serve both God and the king. Becket assumes his office with religious dignity and, finding himself in opposition to Henry's interference in the church, resigns as Chancellor of England. Furious because he mistakenly believed that installing his best friend as archbishop would give him control of the church, Henry joins forces with Becket's enemy, Folliot, the Bishop of London, in an attempt to bring Becket to trial on false charges of embezzlement. Becket escapes to France where King Louis VII helps him reach the Vatican. Pope Alexander III offers him sanctuary in a monastery, and Louis arranges for a final meeting between Becket and Henry. The confrontation between the two former friends is an emotional one, and Henry guarantees Becket's safe conduct back to England. There, the Saxons give Becket a warm welcome. The frustrated Henry impulsively calls for the elimination of the meddlesome priest, however, and four barons murder Becket before the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. Stricken by the loss of his friend and filled with guilt, Henry allows himself to be flogged by Saxon monks and then proclaims Becket a saint.
Anne V. Coates
Best Writing, Screenplay
Best Costume Design
Best Supporting Actor
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
God rest his soul.- Thomas a Becket
He will, He will. He'll be much more use to God than he ever was to me.- King Henry II
Honor is a private matter within; it's an idea, and every man has his own version of it.- Thomas a Becket
How gracefully you tell your king to mind his own business.- King Henry II
Oh, if I were a man!- Queen Matilda
Thank God, madam, He gave you breasts! An asset from which I derived not the slightest benefit.- King Henry II
Am I the strongest or am I not?- King Henry II
You are today, but one must never drive one's enemy to despair; it makes him strong. Gentleness is better politics, it saps virility. A good occupational force must never crush. It must corrupt.- Thomas a Becket
Don't be nervous, Bishop. I'm not asking for absolution. I've something far worse than a sin on my conscience: a mistake.- King Henry II
Peter O'Toole is the only person nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for playing the same historical character in two different films: King Henry II, in both this movie and Lion in Winter, The (1968).
Opened in London in March 1964; running time: 149 min. Filmed in 35mm and blown up to 70mm for some roadshow presentations.
Voted Best Picture of the Year by the 1964 National Board of Review.
Winner of the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Screenplay of 1964.
Released in United States 1990
Released in United States October 1996
Released in United States Spring March 9, 1964
Re-released in United States February 2, 2007
Re-released in United States January 26, 2007
Wide Release in United States March 11, 1964
Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival April 30- May 13, 1990.
Released in USA on video.
Restored version shown at New York City's Film Forum January 26-February 1, 2007.
Film will be re-released in 70mm taken from an original 65mm negative.
Released in United States 1990 (Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival April 30- May 13, 1990.)
Re-released in United States January 26, 2007 (Film Forum; New York City)
Released in United States Spring March 9, 1964
Wide Release in United States March 11, 1964
Released in United States October 1996 (Shown in New York City (American Museum of the Moving Image) as part of program "Hollywood Independents: Wallis-Hazen Productions" October 12-27, 1996.)
Re-released in United States February 2, 2007 (Los Angeles)