Becket (1964)

Becket (1964)

“One can always come to a sensible little agreement with God.”

When King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) appoints his best friend Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) as Archbishop of Canterbury, he soon finds that Burton’s loyalty to God is stronger than their friendship.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Friendship
  • Historical Drama
  • John Gielgud Films
  • Niall MacGinnis Films
  • Peter O’Toole Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Priests and Ministers
  • Religious Faith
  • Revenge
  • Richard Burton Films
  • Royalty and Nobility

Peter Glenville’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s French play won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay (by Edward Anhalt), and was nominated for 11 other awards. It remains a surprisingly compelling character study of friendship, loyalty, leadership, politics, revenge, and spirituality, with King Henry’s toxic narcissism — he needs to be on top, and considers himself more important even than God — as a driving thematic force. One watches with deep discomfort during the first portion of the film as Henry conscripts Becket into his every whim, including planning to bed a young courtesan (Siân Phillips) he knows Becket is romantically involved with:

… and culminating with his insistence that Becket take on the role of Archbishop despite no training or qualifications, simply to suit his own political purposes. What ensues is a fascinating exploration of a concerted attempt to combat evil through integrity:

… and how a petulant tyrant may respond (which, of course, remains as relevant as ever). Watch for Pamela Brown as a put-upon Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine:

… Martita Hunt as Henry’s mother, Empress Matilda:

… Felix Aylmer as the aging Archbishop of Canterbury, who will soon be replaced:

… John Gielgud as King Louis VII of France:

… and Niall MacGinnis as one of the king’s barons.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Peter O’Toole as King Henry II (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Richard Burton as Lord Becket
  • Fine sets, costumes, and cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s well worth a one-time look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.


One thought on “Becket (1964)

  1. (Rewatch 5/18/21) Not must-see.

    A fair amount of dubious religious dogma lies at the root of this film. Somewhat heavy-handed and (as per usual) ‘playful’ with the facts of the story, its focus on the deep friendship between Thomas and Henry highlights a conflict between earthly power and spirituality. The friendship pays the price.

    But if only the conflict felt as authentic as the one we witness when we visit with O’Toole as Henry again in ‘The Lion in Winter’. The effectiveness of ‘Becket’ is spotty.

    The one who impresses here most is John Gielgud as fey King Louis.

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