Love vs. Power
“Becket” ranks as one of the finest films ever made. It has an engrossing story, brilliant actors, gorgeous and lush photography and costumes and cinematically it is pure joy. I remember when I was teaching a course in film theory to a group of boys at a military high school in New Orleans, two of the films I chose were “The Lion In Winter” and “Becket”, two complimentary historical dramas. We marveled at the quality of film making and I have since wondered why we have never had “Becket” on DVD. It’s here now and we are all better off because of it. “Becket” is a feast for the eyes and the ears and if it not on your “to see” list, it should be. It is an epic film but one for the thinking person dealing with a friendship that goes sour between a king and a prelate, a relationship that had been very close (so much so that the king’s mother questions its nature). Henry II and Thomas a Becket were the best of friends until power reared its head.
Peter O’Toole is Henry II and he philanders with his best friend, Thomas Becket (Richard Burton). Henry is usually in some sort of major argument with his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and his mother Matilda. He wants an heir to his throne and even though he has fathered four sons, he sees none of them as fit to rule his realm.
The Catholic bishops of England try to get Henry to yield to the church. He maintains that the monarchy is above the law of God. He counters their demands by appointing his friend, Thomas as chancellor of England but Thomas takes his job seriously. He uses his diplomatic skill to keep Bishop Folliot of London off of Henry’s case. While reclaiming part of Normandy, the news reaches Henry that the Archbishop of Canterbury has dies and the king fears that Folliot will use the vacant office as a tool against royal power. Henry names Thomas as his new archbishop in hopes that he will be able to keep the church in check. Thomas, however, continues to de his work seriously and with ardor and goes against his lord, the king. When Becket goes to the Pope, Henry decides that he is a traitor and the new archbishop is put to death.
“Becket” is a study of the nature, influence and abuse of power. Basically an intimate film, the story of a friendship goes awry. Henry wants to keep his friend but only on his own terms and according to his own definitions of friendship. He mistakes Thomas’s willingness to serve to mean willingness to be a royal tool.
The beginning of the film concentrates on the men’s friendship. Their whoring ad hunting together shows a friendship that is ideal. Henry believes that Thomas will do anything for the sake of a good time but Thomas discovers in himself that he is a man of principles. He tells Henry that if given a high office, he will perform its duties seriously and with gusto. And such are the misunderstandings of history.
Peter Glenville gives us a stunning film. Considering now that it is forty years old, the movie has a great deal of sex. It also has a great sense of humor and some of the scenes are downright laugh aloud funny. The movie shows us power by presenting s with powerful men—the Pope, the king of France (Sir John Gielgud), the king of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury. They also use their right to bully ad manipulate those around them.
The DVD has some wonderful extras. Peter O’Toole gives an excellent and enlightening commentary track. There is an interview with the man who wrote the music, Laurence Rosenthal and with the film’s editor Anne Coates. There are inside jokes relayed about the stars and the extras enhance the beautiful digital transfer to DVD.
Burton and O’Toole show what wonderful actors they are in “Becket” and the film joins the ranks of those movies for the ages.