Review by Mark Wiechman
Stars: Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Donald
Director: Peter Glenville
Audio: Dolby 5.1, Spanish and French and English subtitles
Video: Color widescreen, aspect ratio: 2.20:1
Studio: MPI Home Video
Features: See Review
Length: 148 minutes
Release date: May 15, 2007
Honor is a private matter within; it's an idea, and every man has his own
version of it.
: How gracefully you tell your king to mind his own business.
King Henry II: (handing Becket his ring) There. That's the Great Seal of England. Don't lose it; without the seal, there's no more England, and we'll all have to pack up and go back to Normandy.
King Henry II: I'm suddenly very intelligent. It probably comes from making love to that French girl last night.
First I have to say that it is about time!!! With so much mindless drivel being released on DVD it is hard to believe that this 1964 gem is only now being released. But it was recently reported in the Wall Street Journal that the reason the movie has been away for so many years is that the original print was lost in Europe in the 1980’s, and that the film had to be restored from other copies and the entire soundtrack added again with the prior VHS release as a guide.
Based on a play, which is based on history, Becket begins as a light-hearted story of Henry II of England and his best friend Thomas Becket, who is portrayed as a Saxon (the conquered native people of Britannia) but in reality was a Norman, like William the Conqueror who established the dynasty in England. The film is partly a history lesson, where we see Henry sail to Normandy (which of course is modern France) and accept the keys to a town his forces recently captured from the French. The film is also a study in the loneliness of a paranoid ruler who counts the Roman Catholic Church, his own family, and eventually Becket himself as enemies.
When Henry needs money and more control over his kingdom, he sees an opportunity to get both when the Archbishop of Canterbury dies and he nominates Becket to take his place. Since Becket was a deacon, it was relatively simple to ordain him a priest, and then consecrate him Archbishop the next day. Becket is horrified at the king’s suggestion and warns him not to do it.
In the hands of Richard Burton, we see what real acting can be, as Thomas evolves from a playboy who visits whorehouses and drinks with his king to a true believer in Christ and His Church. In his prayers he asks God to finally show him what it is to love, as he seems unable to love the king or anyone else except when it profits him. This is not what the king expected at all. Instead of a puppet, Becket becomes a true shepherd of his people and at odds with the king. Becket takes charity and responsibility very seriously, and when a nobleman kills a priest, he is charged with murder and sacrilege. King Henry will hear none of this and insists that no charges be brought against a man who killed a priest accused of adultery. In those days, the Church had its own courts and often used excommunication as a weapon against those who were not answerable to civil authorities. Therefore, in one of the great cinematic gems of our age, we see Becket declare the nobleman “Damned and anathema. We cast him into the outer darkness, with the devil….SO BE IT!!!”
We hear authentic, beautiful Gregorian chant. We even get to hear authentic Welsh singing by Becket’s mistress. I think it is unfair to call this era the “Dark Ages.” To borrow historian Will Durant’s phrase, it was the “Age of Faith” and the Europe of the Renaissance was still growing in the womb. And we see King Henry, betrayed by his best friend, woefully alone. In a moment of drunken raving, the heartbroken king demands to know why no one will rid him of Becket. In reality no one really knows if the king gave the order to kill Becket or if it was a misunderstanding with deadly consequences, and Peter O’ Toole is completely believable as the ruler who loves only one person, his Thomas, and realizes what is happening only when it is too late.
In one of the pivotal moments of Christian history, on December 29, 1170, Henry’s guards murder Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his own cathedral. In the movie version he is slain at the foot of the altar. Henry is ordered to be whipped to avoid excommunication himself, and Thomas is declared a saint. Until Henry VIII broke with Rome, Becket’s chapel at Canterbury was one of the most visited in all of Europe. And the irony of course is that Henry VIII ordered the beheading of his own friend, Thomas Moore, for choosing the honor of the church over his king. History repeats itself with such cold vengeance. While that story was told in the critically acclaimed Man for All Seasons, that film is a real snoozer compared to Becket.
As O’Toole mentions in his commentary, religion and state are still hot topics today. He fails to mention though that the whole point of the story is that the honor of God is more significant than friendship or the honor of a king. Becket says this himself in the movie. And he paid for it with his life, as so many innocent people all of the world have also. Unfortunately, the honor of false gods is often seen as better than human life itself as well.
The restoration from non-ideal sources is pretty good, the colors are wonderful and alive, the only big problem being a kind of background vibration seen with tape. It is not all that noticeable except in the background. There are one or two spots in which color seems to disappear from an actor’s face very obviously, but media reports quoted the restoration engineers saying it was done “old-school”, which I assume means non-CGI. As with the audio, it is not up to its potential but still pretty good.
A wonderful soundtrack and clear dialogue is well-mixed throughout, although the rear channels are rarely if ever used, which is disappointing. The dialogue is so well done but unfortunately does not sound like it was restored very well, it reminds me of television quality audio in that department. But it all still works fine.
Fortunately Peter O’Toole is still alive and sharp enough to discuss in the commentary what it was like working with Richard Burton and he describes in detail how most of the movie was shot on set, not in a real cathedral. He also comments on how they spent many hours by themselves working on their roles, then they would run dialogue in their makeup chairs before shooting. He does not slam modern actors but says that this kind of discipline is common with theatre actors and no so much with non-theatre people. My favorite detail is his statement that even his crown was only cardboard, though he holds it as if it were gold. His explanation of how the play came to be was worth the price of the disc.
The interviews with Burton are not related to the movie and honestly detract from the whole package, especially the later one as we see Burton in the twilight of his career and very unhappy with life in general at the time. On the other hand the Interviews with editor Anne V. Coats and composer Laurence Rosenthal are very educational. The television and theatrical spots are very typical of their time, with the theatrical trailer showing half of the movie (it seems) and the TV spot being so short you will miss it if you blink.
It is good to be king, but don’t make your best friend archbishop, that’s my advice. One of the best movies ever, in my opinion, finally comes to DVD. It was nominated for 12 Oscars but only won for best adapted screenplay, so the wisdom of the Academy continues to be in question. Don’t let the minor problems with the restoration scare you away from this nearly-lost masterpiece.