Thursday, May 26, 2011

Becket (1964)

Cinema Sweetheart's Rating: 10 out of 10
Director: Peter Glenville
Starring: Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Drama, Historical, Religious
Runtime: 150 minutes

A story of friendship, betrayal, and honor, Becket is a stirring drama that is not to be missed.  King Henry II (O’Toole) is a mischievous rogue, spoiled rotten twat, and the ruler of England a few generations after the Norman invasion.  Thomas Becket (Burton), his best friend and partner in crime, is a bitter Saxon, who is unable to find real love or compassion for anyone but himself.  After making him a nobleman in Norman society, Henry gets his friend appointed first as archdeacon, then as Chancellor, and Archbishop of Canterbury.  However, once he gains this high position, Thomas comes to find religion and compassion, and for the first time, he begins to defy the will of the king, rather than accepting his every order without question.  What results is a series of events that would shake the very foundations of their friendship.

I was first drawn to this film for two main reasons: one, Richard Burton was acting in the title role.  Although I’m not extremely well-versed in the filmography of this actor, I’ve always been a fan.  My first introduction to Burton was through the musical Camelot, where he played the role of King Arthur.  And in my Classical film class, I was able to view scenes from a few other Richard Burton films, including The Robe (1953).  There is something about Richard Burton, some commanding force that he displays so perfectly, that makes him wholly delightful to watch.  The second reason I wanted to watch this film was because of the story.  After having studied The Canterbury Tales three times now for school, the name Thomas Becket is very prominent in my literary vocabulary; after all, the whole point of the book is a pilgrimage to his grave!

Even though Richard Burton was obviously my reason for watching the film, I must say that Peter O’Toole was wonderful as well.  While Becket obviously made changes in his philosophies as the movie progressed, it was a bit subtle.  However, it was very powerful watching the changes that Henry was forced to go through because of his friend’s decision. The movie opens with a very serious, mature Henry II at the tomb of Thomas Becket.  Not more than ten minutes later, we see Henry as he used to be: mischievous, immature, and free.  It leave the audience wondering what had happened to this man that he would be in the condition we see at the start of the film.   O’Toole plays the transformations flawlessly.

This was a wonderful, wonderful movie.  Despite the length (two and a half hours), I sat enthralled by the story and the characters.  Even though we know what is going to happen at the very start of the film (Becket will die), we do not actually know how these events are to come about, and therein lies the suspense.  It is not a clean cut plot, either.  I mean to say, there is not just one reason why everything falls apart.  When Thomas starts refusing to listen to Henry’s commands, sides are taken, and things start to build up.  Becket finds an ally in King Louis VII of France (John Gielgud) and the tenacious young monk Brother John (David Weston).  Henry, in turn, appeals to corrupted members of the Church, who are upset that Thomas has taken power away from them.  But, through it all, despite their differing loyalties, one cannot forget that these two men once had a beautiful friendship; and where did it go?

This was a powerful, very moving film.  If you’re a fan of either Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole, I would highly suggest watching Becket.  Also, this might be of interest to English majors (especially those with a concentration in Medieval literature), because if it were not for Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, there would be no Canterbury Tales.

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