Becket has some genre constraints. Significant ones. It’s a king-sized 70mm Panavision English history epic only it doesn’t feature any big battles. In fact, it goes out of its way not to show battles. It’s also an early sixties historical epic and it’s trying to be a little edgy in how it shows the relationship between King of England Peter O’Toole and his friend and advisor Richard Burton, the title character. Burton doesn’t just help O’Toole drink and carouse, he also advises him with matters of state, giving better advice than anyone else. Are they lovers? Queen Pamela Brown certainly implies it, but she’s also a shrieking evil harpy of a royal who wants to infest the kingdom with her idiot sons. Becket’s real clear—O’Toole might be a tyrant and a rapist, but his wife is even worse; England would be worse off with her having a say.
The film’s a toxically masculine take on certain aspects of toxic masculinity but not others. If O’Toole and Burton were lovers in the film, it’d probably make them more likable. Without, the film just implies Burton helps O’Toole rape comely subjects, sometimes taking part, sometimes not. O’Toole, being a Norman, doesn’t look on the Saxon peasants as human beings—but, you know, does and chooses not to so he can abuse them—and Burton, the only good Saxon in all England, helps him along. See, Burton’s an amoral collaborator. Being amoral and without honor means he can collaborate with a free heart, making him a great sidekick for O’Toole, both socially and politically. The scenes where Burton debates the Church on O’Toole’s behalf—the film’s set in the 12th century, before England split from the Roman Catholic Church—are fantastic. 1160 is about the last time a bunch of ignorant White men debating each other had much purpose and it’s great material for Burton. He excels at being intellectually superior. While O’Toole excels at having fun. Unfortunately, Burton’s arc takes into spiritual superiority, which Becket avoids almost as much as it avoids whether or not Burton and O’Toole got horizontal. O’Toole goes from having funny to being a maniacal, drunken jerk… O’Toole excels at it as well; the second half of Becket is all about the response to the title character, not about the title character’s experiences.
To stop having trouble with the Church, O’Toole—and the actual, you know, King Henry II—gives Burton—Becket—the job of Archbishop of Canterbury, making him the head of the Church in England. O’Toole assumes Burton’s going to be his old self, Burton instead decides he’s got to do it legit and devout. He doesn’t so much find God—or at least not in an overt way, Becket’s not getting into that part—as he finds a moral center. Is he arguing one amoral, exploitative system against another? Sure, but he’s ignorant of the Church’s crimes while party to the State’s. It gives Burton a great part—for a while—because he can sell the heck out of holier than thou; intellectually so, then spirituality so. Shame the movie dumps him in the last third or so.
It’s obviously going to happen—the movie opens with O’Toole talking to Burton’s coffin (spoiler alert)—but when the movie shifts focus from Burton to O’Toole, while introducing nagging wife Brown and nagging mother Martita Hunt, not to mention awful royal sons, it’s clear early on we’re never really getting back to Burton. His experience—in the film named after his character—isn’t important. He goes off and does monk-y things. Even when he’s convinced of his inevitable martyrdom, it comes at the literal end. Nothing of his experience of living with it. Becket, Becket decides, is a mystery. Even if Burton was doing a perfectly good job of explaining him.
It’s like the film doesn’t want to think too hard about anything. Other than giving its stars some good scenes. It’s a historical epic, after all. Director Glenville’s pretty plain, direction-wise; when he does have a really good shot, it’s a surprise. Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is solid, but for an epic, not a character drama. Glenville’s not directing a character drama, but the stars are acting in one. The film, based on a stage play, never feels stagy enough. Good epic music from Laurence Rosenthal. Becket’s an event instead of an achievement, leveraging Burton and O’Toole without ever facilitating them.
John Gielgud’s awesome as the King of France. Otherwise no one in the supporting cast is really up to Burton or O’Toole’s level. Definitely not Burton’s monk sidekick David Weston, who’s… fine. Fine for a not entirely unsuccessful historical epic.
Burton and O’Toole could do more with more. They do quite well with what they have but Burton getting the second-half shaft causes unsurmountable damage.
Directed by Peter Glenville; screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on Lucienne Hill’s translation of the play by Jean Anouilh; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Laurence Rosenthal; production designer, John Bryan; costume designer, Margaret Furse; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Peter O’Toole (King Henry II), Richard Burton (Thomas Becket), David Weston (Brother John), Donald Wolfit (Bishop Folliot), Martita Hunt (Empress Matilda), Pamela Brown (Queen Eleanor), Siân Phillips (Gwendolen), Gino Cervi (Cardinal Zambelli), Paolo Stoppa (Pope Alexander III), and John Gielgud (King Louis VII).