One of the greatest dramas in history, “Becket” tell the moving and ultimately tragic story of King Henry II and his friend and confidant, Thomas a’ Becket. As young men, Henry and Becket wine, wench, and wage war across England and Europe. Becket tries, but seldom succeeds, in reigning in the King’s baser impulses and tempestuous, erratic conduct.
Henry’s wanton actions as king lead to controversies and conflicts, eventually putting him at odds with the English Church. Hoping to force the Church into subservience, Henry appoints Becket to the venerable position of Archbishop of Canterburydespite his hesitation and reluctance.
Much to Henry’s chagrin and astonishment, what begins as amiable relationship turns into disagreement and conflict when Henry proves to be more dedicated to the church and his duties than Henry had hoped or anticipated. A battle of will ensues, leading to a rift between the King and his people. Henry views Becket’s commitment to faith over friendship as utter betrayal and the relationships begins to unravel.
In the end, defeated and angry, Henry contemplates Becket’s execution, setting in motion a chain of horrific events that culminates in tragedy.
Unlike most stage adaptations, this screen version effectively opens up the intense, intimate drama without sacrificing the integrity and coherence of the work. Despite long monologues, playwright Anouilh and screenwriter Edward Anhalt manage to dramatize the text so it doesn’t sound like a series of ideological sermons or personal speeches.
It’s a subject matter that Fred Zinnemann handled in several films, most notably in his adaptation of “A Man for All Seasons,” which won the 1966 Oscars, with a towering performance of Brit Paul Scofield as Thomas Moore. And yet, “Becket” is a better, more cinematically exciting picture than Zinnemann’s work due to Glenville’s astutebut not-stately–mise-en-scene.
The acting of the two leads, O’Toole and Burton, both eccentric actors, is distinguished and so is the chemistry between them, playing off each other in the most impressive collaborative mode. This is the only teaming of O’Toole and Burton, on screen or stage.
The supporting cast, particularly John Gielgud as King Louis VII of France, Martita Hunt, Pamela Brown, Felix Aylmer, and Donald Wolfit.
Sir Laurence Olivier played the title role when “Becket” was done on Broadway.
Peter O’Toole played again the role of King Henry II in “The Lion in Winter,” opposite Katharine Hepburn, for which eh scored another Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Oscar Nominations: 12
Picture, produced by Hal B. Wallis Director: Peter Glenville Screenplay (Adapted): Edward Anhalt Actor: Richard Burton Actor: Peter O’Toole Supp. Actor: John Gielgud Cinematography (color): Geoffrey Unsworth Art Direction-Set Decoration: John Bryan and Maurice Carter; Patrick McLoughlin and Robert Cartwright Sound: John Cox Music Score (original): Laurence Rosenthal Editing: Anne Coates Costume Design (color): Margaret Furse
Oscar Awards: 1
One of the greatest losers in the Academy’s history, “Becket” had the misfortune of openingand competing againstin the same year saw the release of the classic musical “My Fair Lady,” a lesser picture that nonetheless swept most of the Oscars.
The other three Best Picture nominees were the Disney musical “Mary Poppins,” the most nominated film with 13 nods and 5 wins, Kubrick’s political satire, “Dr. Strangelove,” with 4, and “Zorba the Greek,” with 7 nominations.
O’Toole, previously nominated for “Lawrence of Arabia,” and Burton, must have cancelled each other out in the final voting, or perhaps it was not their year, since the popular Oscar favorite in 1964 was Rex Harrison for “My Fair Lady.”
(Hal B. Wallis Production)