|Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole|
In the 12th century the Saxon Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) becomes friend, companion -- and some feel, collaborator -- with King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) -- and the two go "drinking and wenching" together. First Henry makes Beckett the Royal Chancellor, and then hits upon the idea of making him Archbishop of Canterbury. This is done because of the friction between the king and the Catholic Church, but Henry gets a surprise when Becket takes his role seriously and becomes seriously pious. When an arrested priest escapes jail and is killed by a Nobleman, Becket wants the man excommunicated, which Henry sees as a blow against England. If Becket goes ahead with his plans, there will be terrible consequences ... Becket is a handsome, well-produced, and well-acted film with a fine score by Laurence Rosenthal, striking production design by John Bryan, and excellent wide-screen photography by Geoffrey Unsworth, but Becket must not be taken as literal history. Edward Anhalt's script was based on a poorly-researched play by Jean Anouilh which ignores the fact that Becket was not a Saxon, but a Norman as Henry was. While this may add more motive and conflict to the story, it simply isn't true. Then there's the blatant homoerotic element. The relationship between the two men first seems like a warm if cautious friendship, but turns strange (by 1964 standards) when Henry's wife and mother both object to the presence of Becket in the king's life. Henry's mother accuses her son of having an "unhealthy" and "unnatural" obsession with him; O'Toole plays certain scenes like a discarded lover; Henry clearly loves Becket much more than his wife and children; and at one point cries out in anguish in front of his men at how much he still loves Thomas Becket. If King Henry II had romantic or sexual longings for Becket, or if the two had a relationship early in life, there has never been any historical proof of it . In a sense the portrayal of Henry is the cliche of the tormented homosexual or bisexual man who acts as much out of "twisted" passion and rejection as anything else, like Rod Steiger's character in The Sergeant.
Richard Burton is excellent as Becket, while O'Toole is superb as the king. There is also fine work from John Gielgud as the King of France; Donald Wolfit [Room at the Top] as Bishop Folliot, who'd hoped to be made Archbishop himself; David Weston as Brother John, a would-be assassin (of Becket) turned monk; and Sian Phillips as Gwendolyne, who loves Becket and comes to a sad fate. As the movie's representations of Henry's mother and wife, respectively, Martita Hunt [The Brides of Dracula] and Pamela Brown seem merely to be striking poses and busily "acting" compared to the others. Besides the distortion of history, there are other problems with the movie, such as the "cutesy" element of some scenes, with the king acting like a girl-crazy adolescent and the Pope almost turned into a figure out of a sitcom. There is absolutely no sense of the passage of time.
Verdict: Entertaining, dramatic "history" served up on a now dated psycho-sexual platter. ***.