Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Like Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia, Becket is a 'thinking man's epic.' It helped cement Peter O'Toole's star reputation -- he could dish Edward Anhalt's dense dialogue from Jean Anouilh's play with the best of them. The highly literate story has in common with A Man for All Seasons the central premise of a friendship gone sour between a king and a close associate, but in this case the relationship is almost embarrassingly close -- the king's own mother accuses him of having an unnatural attraction to his carousing buddy, Thomas Becket.
King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) philanders with his best pal Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) when not arguing with his wife Queen Eleanor (Pamela Brown) and mother Matilda (Martita Hunt). The Catholic Bishops try to make Henry yield by claiming that God's law is above a monarch, so Henry counters them by installing Thomas as his Chancellor. Thomas takes the job seriously, using his considerable diplomatic skill and some courtly bullying to keep the ambitious Bishop Folliot of London (Donald Wolfit) off of Henry's back. While reclaiming territory in Normandy, news comes that Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) has died. Fearing that Folliot will use the office to stem his royal power, Henry goes a step too far: He names Thomas as the new Archbishop, hoping to use him to check the entire church. But Thomas takes his new job seriously, flexing the Church's muscle when Henry's Barons execute a priest accused of a crime. When Henry threatens trouble, Becket goes first to King Louis VII of France (John Gielgud) and then to see the Pope in Rome (Paolo Stoppa). Henry has already decided that Becket is a traitor, and offhandedly complains to his Barons why such a man should be allowed to keep troubling him.
Becket is an excellent display of the nature and influence of power. The lavishly mounted film is intimate by nature; it's basically the story of a friendship that goes awry because one friend happens to be a king. Henry wants the illusion of camaraderie but defines all of his relationships in selfish terms. Henry misreads Thomas' willingness to serve as a willingness to be his tool. Henry wanted Becket to be both his Chancellor and his Archbishop, two completely incompatible offices.
Henry and Thomas spend the earlier part of the film hunting and whoring. Thomas suppresses his fair-minded nature by asking for a girl that the king wanted, and then quietly setting her free. The king allows this with the understanding that the favor will be repaid in kind, and then almost immediately asks to spend the night with Becket's young concubine. Quite satisfied that this relationship means nothing compared to the needs of the king, Becket does not protest. That incident has a terrible finish, and it gives Henry the idea that Thomas will do anything for him. Thomas instead discovers that he's a man of principle after all. He tries to explain to Henry that if he's given a high office, he'll serve it properly, but the king doesn't listen. Of such 'misunderstandings' is history made, usually with a lot of bloodletting involved.
Director Peter Glenville's work is assured; Becket gets away with more sex than usual as Henry flaunts his constant string of conquests. The film has a sense of humor as well, with O'Toole losing his temper over his brat offspring, especially the "moron" who will someday inherit his throne. The story keeps our interest by generating amusingly credible scenes of powerful men -- the quiet Pope, Gielgud's French king -- exercising their right to bully and manipulate those around them. It's an extremely intelligent picture.
Percy Herbert, Niall MacGuinness and Christopher Rhodes are the brutish Barons. Wilfrid Lawson, Magda Konopka (Satanik) and Edward Woodward (The Wicker Man) can be seen if one keeps a sharp eye out.
MPI's DVD of Becket is the disc that its fans have been waiting for, although it isn't quite as rare as the package text implies. There was a laserdisc release but this DVD outclasses it in all departments. Colors are slightly warm; otherwise the enhanced widescreen image is beautiful.
This has been a big year for Peter O'Toole, and Becket comes complete with a commentary track from the famed actor. Mark Kermode moderates, starting right out by establishing that the play has a number of historical errors. O'Toole is in exceptional good voice and is quite spirited when remembering aspects of the forty year-old picture. Edited interviews with the composer Laurence Rosenthal and the editor Anne V. Coates are also good. Rosenthal talks about producer Hal Wallis giving him a hard time and demanding an upbeat musical finish (the composer thwarts that notion). Ms. Coates discusses the stars and a practical joke in which O'Toole replaced a nude actress under a blanket with Burton's wife Liz Taylor. Apparently Burton wasn't at all pleased; Coates regrets not hanging onto that piece of film. Both interviewees say that the movie could have been more successful with a few battle scenes, which are about the last thing Becket would seem to need.
Also included are Trailer, a TV spot and a still gallery.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Becket rates:
Supplements: Commentary with Peter O'Toole; stills, trailer, TV spot; Interviews with Laurence Rosenthal and Anne V. Coates
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: May 5, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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