Becket may or may not be great history, but it’s undeniably great filmmaking.
Originally premiering to great critical acclaim in 1964, it has now been reissued in limited release, no doubt intended to coincide with Peter O’Toole’s Oscar nomination for Venus. It tells the true story of Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), trusted advisor, intimate confidant, Chancellor and right-hand man to the king of England, Henry II (O’Toole). Becket’s position is a precarious one: as a Saxon, he remains suspect by the ruling Norman elites, and is seen as a collaborator by his fellow Saxons. To Henry, Thomas is the one man he can trust: he brings elegance and intellect to the court, while not immune from drinking and wenching with the king. Henry admires, respects and loves Thomas, holding everyone else in various stages of contempt. For Thomas Becket himself, life is a mystery. He gives to the king his personal allegiance and loyalty because there is no other place for it to be given; he loves the king (insofar as he is capable of loving anyone) because there is no other focus for his love. But what, he wonders, will happen if ever that “other” comes along?
The answer comes quickly enough as Henry seizes on an unexpected vacancy to appoint Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. For Henry the advantages are obvious: with “his” man in charge, the Church can be brought into line and cease to be a rival for Henry’s power. For Thomas the disadvantages are equally obvious, and he begs Henry not to go through with the appointment. Thomas knows well enough, or at least senses, that once he becomes God’s man he stops being the King’s. There is a showdown, both men remain unyielding, and their fates are set for the tragic ending.
Any time you condense a complex story into two-and-a-half hours (as does Edward Anhalt's Oscar-winning screenplay, based on the play by Jean Anouilh) you necessarily have to simplify some things and leave other things out. For example, I’ve always thought Becket’s inner conversion comes a little too quickly and easily to be entirely convincing. That being said, Burton is splendid in showing the little things that suggest Becket’s growing realization he cannot serve two masters (seen especially in the depiction of his investiture), his agonizing prayers to God for the strength to serve Him well, and his steely determination, once that strength arrives, to follow that course no matter what. A performance such as this only serves to remind us again what a calamity it was that Elizabeth Taylor came along in Burton’s life.
O’Toole is very nearly Burton’s equal in a role that I think could more properly be considered a supporting one. He proves once again that he can go over the top with the best of them, but also powerfully demonstrates a man of conflicted passions, loving Becket with the jealousy of the spurned lover, his hatred perhaps not of Becket but of the God who has usurped Becket’s own loyalties - shown most clearly in Henry’s deep hatred for those who dare to criticize Becket, even as Henry asks, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” (The men who follow what they perceive to be Henry’s orders will themselves be killed by Henry; as he says, we all have our penance to pay.)
Becket comes from the costume drama school of filmmaking that was so popular in the 60s: epic reflections on the human condition (usually British), dealing with great historical events (usually British), dominated by powerful actors (usually British), that became darlings of the Academy. (See Lawrence of Arabia, Anne of the Thousand Days, The Lion in Winter, A Man for All Seasons, etc.) As such, given the Academy’s enamored state with all things British, the quality of these movies could sometimes be spotty. (I think somewhere in Hollywood you can still hear the echo of laughter from the Best Picture nomination for Anne.)
There is no question, however, of the ultimate quality of Becket. If it is at times a little too earnest, it also captures the nobility and dignity of the human spirit. For me this is most clearly on display in the scene where Becket quietly and meticulously vests in the Cathedral with his loyal assistant Brother John, knowing that death probably awaits him once he leaves the sacristy. His calmness may be real or an act, but his determination to face his fate like a man and a servant of God is genuine.
Watching Becket, one can hardly remain unaware of the movie it most closely resembles, the aforementioned A Man For All Seasons. (Side note: I’ve never been able to warm up to that movie, though I’ve tried often enough. Perhaps it’s Paul Scofield’s brilliant but somewhat cool portrayal of Thomas More. Possibly the movie’s just a little too Shakespearian in tone. Maybe I just need to try harder.) The comparison is inevitable; both stories feature protagonists named Thomas (More and Becket) and English kings named Henry (II and VIII). Both are built around conflicts between Church and State and both end very badly for the protagonist, reminding us once again of the sometimes harsh lesson that God's justice is not always visible to us here on earth. (A Man For All Seasons does have it all over Becket in terms of Oscars though, winning Best Picture and Actor, among others.)
However, for me another movie came to mind, and stayed with me from beginning to end. That was Ben Hur, another great Biblical epic, another story of shattered friendships – in this case, the Jewish nobleman Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) and the Roman governor Messala(Stephen Boyd). Childhood companions, they become bitter enemies when Messala asks Judah to become a collaborator – a spy against his own people – which, unlike Becket, Judah refuses to do. Once again events come to a head, once again things end badly for one of the main characters. However, this time it is the villain who gets what he deserves, and the hero who not only achieves vengeance but enlightenment as well. Ben Hur is one of the great epics of all time, but there is something satisfying in the ending that begs comparison to Becket, and illustrates once again not only the difference between fact and fiction, but the obligation of the storyteller.
The mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers once remarked that the central theme of a murder mystery is the restoration of the world to truth through the equilibrium of justice. If justice is not dispensed, the equilibrium does not exist, and the mystery fails. For this reason, it is always necessary in a successful mystery for truth to win out and the perpetrator to be in some whay punished. Sayers, who was also a noted writer on religion, was of course talking about deeper things here, seeing in the mystery form a parallel of Christ's death on the Cross, restoring balance to the sinful world.
And this is where the similarity between Ben Hur and Becket ends. In Ben Hur's climatic chariot race, Messala is killed, his death the result of his own treachery on the track. Interestingly, Messala does not die in the original novel; he become a cripple, but he survives his injuries. I'm not sure who deserves credit for changing this in the movie, but whoever it was undertood the audience's need for Messala's evil to be punished. While not losing track of Judah's discovery of Christ and His teachings, and the subsequent healing of his leperous mother and sister, it was also imperative that Messala be brought to justice. With that issue resolved, the movie was free to move to its uplifting conclusion.
In Becket, we're constrained by sticking to the facts. It is true that Henry submits himself to a public scourging, but this is primarily a political move, designed to placate the restless Normans. In reality, Henry continued to reign for nearly 20 years following Thomas' death. While Becket achieves a moral victory, the audience's innate desire for the restoration of the moral balance goes unfulfilled. The movie's end may be spiritually satisfying, but remains somewhat incomplete. Proving, once again, that real life does not always go the way we might want.
The discussion is purely academic, of course. History is what it is. But it is also part of the historical record that Ben Hur goes on to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Becket's lone Oscar goes to Anhalt's screenplay. No, you have to admit that you get a certain satisfaction from seeing Messala get it in the end, and one wonders if that satisfaction has anything to do with Ben Hur's ultimate success.
Of course, A Man For All Seasons' Henry VIII survives to fight another day (not to mention divorce, murder, remarry, and all the other things kings do), while Thomas More not only dies but the Catholic church in England is virtually destroyed. Hardly a bargain there, and yet Man goes on to win Best Picture. So maybe I'm all wet on this one. Maybe Ben Hur and A Man For All Seasons were simply better movies than Becket (or at least up against lesser ones).
Still, Becket remains a great movie, the story of a man who held significant power and in the end gave it all up for a glory greater than that which he could find among worldly things. It has the glorious feel of filmmaking from an earlier era - actors larger than life, vividness of color, a soundtrack that's not a collection of the latest hit singles, a story that suggests there really is some meaning to life. It reminds us that glory does not always come easily, and often does come at a fearful price. But just as the rewards for the martyr are great in Heaven, so also are the rewards of Becket great for the moviegoer on earth.
Plays this week at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis. Showtimes available on website.
Cross-Posted to: Our Word and Welcome to It