‘Becket’: Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and a Saint in the Making

becket-1964-peter-otoole-richard-burton-ffbIn English history, serving the Church over the monarch has tended to end in martyrdom. And if you’re a martyr named Thomas — Becket or More — you might become the subject of plays and movies.

Dec. 29 is the feast day of Saint Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr, who crossed ecclesial swords with King Henry II (1133-1189) of England. By all accounts, Becket was a great friend of Henry, and a priest who nonetheless enjoyed a good time. Because of his closeness to the king, who named him chancellor, Becket resisted being made Archbishop of Canterbury and primate of the Catholic Church in England.

But once he was Archbishop, the weight of the office descended on him. Becket abandoned his life of luxury and became determined to defend “the honor of God.” As we hope people will do (but they don’t, always), he rose to the occasion.

Becket eventually took sides with the Church against the king, who wanted to impose greater royal control over Church matters. Attempts at reconciliation, even involving Pope Alexander III, failed. Ultimately, Henry said (as oral tradition has held) words to the effect of, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”

Four of Henry’s knights then murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170, as the monks were chanting vespers.

From the account of eyewitness Edward Grim, a monk:

Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martry Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.

T.S. Eliot commemorated the event in his verse drama, “Murder in the Cathedral,” first performed in 1935. It focused on the individual’s opposition to unjust authority, and resonated with audiences witnessing the rise of fascism in Europe. The BBC broadcast it in 1936, and it was made into a 1952 black-and-white film. It’s also been done as a radio play.

More famously, writer Edward Anhalt, director Peter Glenville and producer Hal Wallis adapted “Becket or the Honour of God,” by French playwright Jean Anouilh, into the 1964 film “Becket.”

Peter O’Toole played Henry II (a role he would reprise in 1968 in the film “The Lion in Winter”), and Richard Burton played Becket.

Here’s a sample:

Even early reviews challenged the historicity of the film, saying it took a more personal, rather than strictly factual, approach. From the March 12, 1964, New York Times:

But here the corroding factor is not so much the division of wills of two men over the issue of civil and ecclesiastical power. That is indicated, but not very forcibly; the manner gives the impression that the king is entirely in the wrong.

Here the thing that causes Henry to turn upon Becket wrathfully, to charge him with treachery and finally to call down destruction on his head, is the intolerable fact that Becket has ceased to be his loyal friend, to be the obliging companion of their drinking and wenching days. Far more invidious to Henry than Becket’s resistance to the authority of the crown is the shattering realization that his love has been spurned.

Against [O’Toole’s Henry] is ranged a Becket whom Richard Burton makes a creature of contradictory nature and frigid, inflexible will. He is ready to compromise, to bargain in his early days with the king, but he assumes stoical rigidity when he takes on “the honor of God.” There is little give in Mr. Burton’s performance, little spirituality, little warmth. He is probably very close to the Becket of history.

The film does end with Henry repenting of the murder of Becket and declaring him a saint (which Alexander III actually did, not long after Becket’s death).

A few years later, O’Toole returned as Henry in another film that climaxes near Christmas, “The Lion in Winter,” adapted by James Goldman from his own play. At least one reviewer deems it a superior film to “Becket.”

From LifeasaHuman.com:

“The Lion in Winter” is a masterpiece of a movie that feverishly paints human nature in its darkest hues. Becket is a lesser work of art — the screenplay is “Lion’s” feeble cousin — but it renders a nobler and more heroic portrait of man through its depiction of recovered honour and a life sacrificed for a higher principle. It is also a story of the deepest love, a love that is shattered by one man’s lust for power.

Along with “The Lion in Winter,” it’s hard to think of “Becket” without also thinking of 1966’s “A Man for All Seasons,” starring Robert Shaw as Henry VII and Paul Scofield as Saint Thomas More. A layman, lawyer and chancellor, More refused to reject the authority of Rome and accede to Henry’s desire to put aside his lawful Catholic queen, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn.

in 1996, as part of the commemoration of a century of cinema, the Vatican declared “A Man for All Seasons” to be one of the greatest films ever.

And here’s a taste:

Catholic movie reviewer Deacon Steven Greydanus also prefers “Man,” but gives “Becket” its due.

I said above that the events of “Becket” lay like a dress rehearsal for “A Man for All Seasons.” That may not be entirely fair either; but in the end I can’t help thinking of the two films together: and, beside the blazing brilliance of the later film, even a fine production like Becket suffers from comparison. Burton’s Thomas Becket is much less accessible and attractive than Scofield’s Thomas More; and even “Becket’s” witty and Oscar-winning screenplay, written by Edward Anhalt from the Jean Anouilh stage play, pales beside Robert Bolt’s incomparable adaptation from his own play, passages of which were adapted directly from More’s own writings and records.

But Becket is nonetheless a masterpiece, reverent, well-made, literally spectacular. Besides the witty screenplay with many memorable lines, there are splendid performances, particularly from the two leads.

Now, if you haven’t seen them already, you’ve got some titles to add to your must-watch list!

Image: Courtesy Paramount

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