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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.
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.
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
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