by Matt J. Popham
[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]
A flawed film about flawed men, elevated by two majestic performances, Peter Glenville’s almost perfect rendering of Jean Anouilh’s Becket is alleged to be one of the few film adaptations of the playwright’s work that he looked upon favorably.
Dramatizing the schism between King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) that pitted the power of the church against the British throne, both the play and the film are rife with nonchalant historical inaccuracies, which hardly matters since, at its core, Becket is a tragedy of unrequited love. Which is not to say that the film’s driving philosophical and political conflicts are mere pretense. On the contrary, Anouilh, a survivor of the German occupation of France, had a profound understanding of how ideology and interpersonal relationships can inform one another, sometimes tearing people – and nations – apart.
Imbued with an incandescent mercurial glee, O’Toole ‘s spoiled and sensual Henry needs the cooler, more cerebral Becket, as both a trusted advisor and close companion (the play’s homoerotic subtext remains readily apparent despite being toned down for the film). Becket, however, much as he loves his king and is momentarily content to serve him, is in need of something else: a sense of honor. When Henry appoints him Archbishop, thinking he will eliminate his opposition in the church, Becket finds his true path, and their relationship is dealt a fatal blow. Burton plays Becket with a guarded, intellectual detachment that evolves (in certain moments, a little too quickly) into an austere sense of purpose, only to be eventually weighed down by a noble fatalism as he comes to understand where his path is leading. It’s an intense, icy performance that contrasts perfectly with O’Toole’s manic fire.
But while there’s no question that Anouilh’s sympathies were with his title character, Glenville and screenwriter Edward Anhalt occasionally make the mistake of leaning a little too obviously on Becket’s side, dulling some of the play’s arresting ambiguities. Henry is petulant and selfish, but his genuine love and respect for Becket should catch us off guard, evoking our sympathies. Conversely, for all his courage and integrity, we should never lose sight of how unsettling easy it is for Becket, who may be utterly incapable of human attachment, to devote himself to the divine. But, especially in the film’s latter half, Glenville and Anhalt flatten Anoulih’s complex, passionate conflicts between the honor of God and the love of man, ultimately reducing its troubling and tragic climax to a simple solemnization of martyrdom.
Given the film’s overall qualities, these are quibbles. Becket remains an engaging, entertaining effort that retains much of its source’s grandeur and impact, its minor missteps more than compensated for by the transcendent talents of its leads.