Sunday, February 7, 2010

Becket (1964) Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole--"Friends Don't Make Friends Archbishops"

"Becket" is one of my favorite historic films of the 1960's.  It follows the realtionship between the uncompromising and highly emotional King Henry II of England (Peter O'Toole, fresh from international acclaim as "Lawrence of Arabia" in the 1962 blockbuster)  and his more reasonable, intelligent and honorable friend and chancellor, Thomas Becket (Richard Burton, fresh from his memorable off-screen romance with Elizabeth Taylor in that long and lackluster production of "Cleopatra".)

The film is set in the 12th Century---The Normans have ruled England since the Conquest in 1066 and Henry is William's great grandson.   The society has stabalized to the point that Henry Planetgenet's main concerns are regaining his hold over select French cities and taxing and controlling the clergy in his kingdom.  The higher clergy, like most institutions of  wealth, would rather neither wished to be taxed more nor submit priests accused of crimes to Henry's courts.  Henry wants control from Rome minimized--        

The movie works as a type of love story---Henry II is a man who doesn't like his family and has felt unloved all his life.  Becket is like an older brother to him, even though in the film (and play by Jean Alouilh) he is a base-born Saxon and Henry a Norman. ( Actually, Becket was probably not a Saxon at all, but a Norman of a lower nobility.   The playwright knew he was mistaken after he finished the play, but didn't change that little goof because it added to the drama of the story. )     

Both Burton and O'Toole are great in their respective roles. Here is a pivotal scene in the middle of the film.



  1. I have to admit, as much as I like Peter O'Toole, I've never seen this flick. I do remember hearing about it, back in the day, but I've not been as big a fan of Mr. Burton.
    I did watch Cleopatra though, and it was ok. Back then I was more into music than movies, I guess.

  2. I don't know how historically accurate that scene is, but there's precious little I wouldn't have given away under the sway of Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton.

    We just don't find such men anymore.

  3. Hehe! A Welshman and an Irishman, two non-English, playing a Saxon and a Norman, two non-Britons. Such white Othellos.

    Despite William I being illegitimate, he was at least of the blood of the royal line. Unlike Harold Godwinson,who's father was the Kingmaker of his day. Godwin had married all his daughters into the English nobility and created a dynesty with Harold at it's head. So, William was not a conquerer of a foreign land, more the rightest heir. But he brought such a cultural and social revolution to England that "Conquerer" still seems apt.

    The "A" in Thomas a Becket was, I believe, a clerical error. He was only ever Thomas Becket, despite the fact that English schools still teach the wrong name.
    I think that you may be right about him being Norman as Becket looks more French than Germanic.

    If there was a vote for the top 10 British actors, I'm pretty sure that Burton and O'Toole would be comfortably esconced in the list. Two marvelous actors. I think that O'Toole is still doing stage work these days.

  4. Great movie. I have seen it several times. I think they both did an excellent job playing their respective roles

  5. "Cleopatra" would have been better as two separate longish films, not one really long film. The story of Caesar and Cleopatra and Marc Anthony and her was shoehorned together--with a lot of storyline left hanging-- because the studio execs thought that the had to capitalize on the red hot Burton and Taylor romance lest they break-up.

    If you like O'Toole, you'll like this film as well as any he's done I think Jacquie.

  6. I just saw the restored version on DVD---it is great. Great also to see in vivid color again.

  7. I have to agree Joanna. Somehow I can't think of two more contemporary stars bringing the gravity to that moment when Henry tells Becket he will be the next archbishop. Its flawless!!

  8. Thanks for the added historical background Oakie. Strange that no one has ever done a major film about "1066" although there was a fine novel called "The Last King of England" a couple years back about Harold as seen through the eyes of a one-armed Saxon knight who wandered about Europe years after the crushing defeat at Hastings. I thought it was good material for a film.

    I'm sure the irony of the two playing Anglo-Normans was not lost on either of the actors nor their British/Irish audience.

    Yes, thanks also for reminding me that O'Toole is still out there. I believe he and Burton hold the dubious honor of having been nominated more times than any others actors for Best Actor nominations in the Oscars. But Burton never won one. O'Toole was finally given some justice with an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar. But what a terrible oversight against both men in my opinion.

    I read one of O'Toole memoirs and have seen him on televison being interviewed. He is quite a wit. Being Irish I suppose that shouldn't come as a surprise.

  9. You're right there Fred. It's great to see a film after a long stretch and find you enjoy it as much as when you were younger.

  10. One of my favorites, also, Doug.

    Thanks for the review!

  11. Burton was always value for money, be it in The Taming of the Shrew, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf or Look Back in Anger. His rich voice matching such rich roles. My favourite performance of his was his reading of Under Milk Wood, which brought Dylan Thomas's already lively tale to life. Maybe his lifestyle was frowned upon by some of the Hollywood establishment.
    And O'Toole was a reveller, too, of course. (Being Irish, hehe!).

    Yes, why has there never been an epic film made of 1066? It was a hugely important time in British history. Maybe the British don't like making films about national defeats. We never made much fuss of the American War of Independance either. Usually the British win in wars, but when we lose, especially on our own soil, we aren't interested. It's like the Norman's never existed. Hehe!
    I'm pretty sure that there are no British films about the Viking invasion of England, nor the Roman invasion (Unless you count Carry on Cleo, hehe!). This stands in stark contrast to the American attitude towards defeat with all those Alamo and Nam films. I'd never noticed our reticence to admit movie defeat until you mentioned it.

  12. Yes, "Under Milk Wood"-----one Burton and O'Toole movie I still need to see.

    Burton was one of the best of that time I agree. "The Spy Who Came In from The Cold" is another of his best roles in my opinion--and another nomination without a win. As I understand, Burton very honest about his contempt for Hollywood's phony glamour and such when he was a young leading man over here in the 1950's. I think that ticked off enough Academy Award voters to always torpedo his eight or nine nominations from earning the big prize. He might not have cared too much though.

    Odd that I never thought of that regarding Americans willingness to stare at defeat more readily perhaps than a British audience. Hard to overlook a national and human disaster like The Vietnam War, admittedly. Our public attitude towards defeat waxes and wanes, but we do have grim films like "Platoon" and "Coming Home" to show a sober reflection to defeat.

    The British certainly have shown the senselessness of trench warfare in World War I and the like on stage and screen but it is interesting I can't think offhand of a film about a colonial defeat. Maybe The Empire is in better shape then its rumored to be after all ;-)

  13. I think Burton was definitely about the art. If you put your heart and soul into a film, it is the film that is important, not the recognition of it by the industry. In these days of The Cult of Personality where it is the, often overrated, artist who is the focus of the media and not the thing that lasts, the art itself, there is a ludicrousness about the award ceremonies, where the dresses that the actresses wear have become a bigger deal than the films themselves. I'm sure that Liz Taylor wouldn't have minded such vacuus, pointless, worthless glamourisation, but I doubt it would have floated Richard Burton's boat.

    In fairness the Nam films were about healing the wounded soul of America, I think. The British did suffer horrendus and unexpected defeats at Ishlandwana and in Afghanistan in colonial times, which were the Nams of their day, but the advent of a wider public awareness and greater social power for young people in the USA left the US establishment with nowhere to go, and the horrific reality of it's own crimes, against the Vietnamese and also against it's own young men, clear for all to see. As for the Alamo, it was always seen as a moral victory, I believe. It was certainly an heroic, noble and patriotic stand.

    Going back to the colonial thing. The British "victory" at Rourke's Drift, subject of the film Zulu, was our Alamo in some ways. But it was a substantial propaganda coup for the British government who made a huge deal out of a militarily insignificant skirmish. The massacre by the Zulus of thousands of professional British soldiers hours before, was the real meat of things, and a film was made of this glaring and humiliating loss. But ONLY after the success of "Zulu". How could a couple of hundred British soldiers win at Rourkes Drift against thousands of hearty Zulus when I think about 5,000 were defeated at Ishlandwana? Leadership. The guy in charge in the defeat was arrogant and stupid. At Rourke's Drift (In stark contrast to the film's version) the sargeants pushed the officers out of the way and organised the defence of what was basically a wagon train. Veteran soldiers and Queen's Rules regulations, rather than the vaingloriousness of a pompus dandy, made all the difference.

  14. True about Elizabeth Taylor--she was The Cult of Personality personified in her day. Not that she didn't have talent, but interest in her seemed to have a life of its own, independent of the often negative public reaction to many of her films after the 60's.

    With the exception of "We Were Soldiers" (about the Battle of Il Drang early in the American part of the Vietnam war) most of the films about Vietnam focus on the home front and there is little serious portrayal of the Vietnamese as individuals--more often "The Vietcong" and the NVA are seen as shadowy figures in a thick green landscape. And I agree that The Alamo is seen as less of a defeat and more as a American Thermoplye. And let me add that the more realistic depictions of what was happening in Vietnam came only after the success of John Wayne's "The Green Berets"(1968) , the only Vietnam film made during the war and quite a misleading flag-waver for its day.

    I remember now that the film "Zulu" makes a reference to the Ishlandwana defeat in the opening scenes. Leadership and veterans indeed have made all the difference. This was a point made over and over in American history during the Civil War--it was only when the Union Armies developed a veteran corps they they could make progress to end that four year disaster. I know the British had great difficulty in the Crimean War in part because gentlemen of high birth could purchase a commission into the Army. Men like Lord Raglan may have been brave, but they were also inexperienced and sometimes foolish.
    The matter of purchasing a commission or electing a popular man as a commander holds loads of pitfalls in the American Civil War as well. This, overall bad leadership, and a lack of greater sanitary conditions for wounded soldiers, created as many problems for the Union as did Stonewall Jackson cavalry and Robert E Lee's Army of Northern Virginia itself.

  15. Oh that's a good comparison. Alamo and Thermopyle. There are a good few similarities between the two.
    I remember John Wayne's Green Berets and also the criticism that it received. And I recall reading about a Confederate military superiority for much of the Civil War. (Countries usually only have one civil war I've noticed).
    Yes, our "elite" put the "crime" into Crimea. The charge of the Light Brigade won massive international acclaim for the British cavalryman, and simultaneously, great condemnation of British commanders. But for me the most awful error about that campaign was the total lack of preparedness that the British army had. Nowadays modern armies are legistically on the ball. But without proper organisation even the modern warrior might freeze or starve in a harsh alien climate.
    Modern goevernments might not necessarily care about the boys that they send off to fight in the East. They probably see them as numbers and resources. But they have to be "seen" to care. In the Crimea it was a soldiers duty to follow orders. To "do his bit". But that was when the government, and the generals were not prepared to do "their bit". And, of course, this carried on right up to the Great War and all those awlful massacres for inches of foreign land.
    It does not suprise me that the American Civil War had similar elements of bad organisation and leadership as it was sinply the order of the day, wasn't it!

  16. Have never seen this movie but Burton and O'Toole - what a combination of actors!

  17. Trust me, this one is good Jack.

  18. Yes, Oakie, Signor Machiavelli would be right at home in the US Congress or Parliament.

    It seems there hasn't been a war since WWII where all segments of society had tomake sacrifices for the effort. Perhaps that's one reason these modern wars seem to stretch on forever.

  19. Yes. It doesn't really feel like a "proper" war unless a whole nation is involved. There was massive media coverage and propaganda here during the Falklands War, but life still went on as usual for the vast majority of Britons. I was just sickened by how easily a seeming majority of Britons seemed to "enjoy" the whole thing. They were all pro-war. "It's about time we had a good war" was not an uncommon phrase at the start. That stopped when the Argentinians sunk a couple of our ships.
    The way most of the nation were mobilised so easily to advocate without questioning showed me that there was no essential difference between modern UK and late 1930s Germany.
    I think that people who endorse war so flippantly ought to be there in the front line. They'd probably be a little more circumspect then. Hehe!

  20. All good pooints Oakie. Yes, I too heard such mindless drivel back in the early 80's as well. "Maybe what we we need is a good war" I heard several times in the early Reagan Era. That's when I realized some people don't learn.

    The Falklands War, and the jumping up of Mrs. Thatcher's poll numbers heading into her relection must have impressed those in the Regan White House---he sent troops into Grenada in a short and victorious war that had no strategic value worth the life of a single soldier.

    It's also not hard to notice those who supported the war in Iraq in 2003 over here very often were non-veterans indeed. I could think of quite a few radio commentators and armchair "chicken hawks" I would have loved to see in the midst of the fighting in the choas of the aftermath of Saddam's fall.

  21. It's is seen in some British quarters that Thatcher actually engineered the Falklands war when she withdrew a majority of the ships patrolling the area at a time that the Junta were under massive pressure in Argentina. General Galtieri must have thought it was his birthday. "A good war will get the public off our backs", he must have thought. He saw the withdrawl of British shipping as a sign of weakness and believed that he could reclaim the Malvinas without major problems.
    Thatcher rode to an easy victory on the back of the war horse, a modern Boudicca, throwing off the tiny chains of a poverty-stricken and repressed far-away country, and freeing a grateful British public and their tabloid masters.

    I think Ronnie was probably her biggest fan.

    War without risk to oneself is the easiest to wage. I wonder what those Spartans at Thermapyle would have thought of the stealth-bombing arrows in the sky that we use today.
    In war terms it's about as sporting as fox hunting.

  22. Yes, a short and victorious war would work wonders for somebody. I did think it strange that The Falklands was so lightly defended back then.

    I remember Prez Reagan sent former General Al Haig down there to get the Argies to negoiate. Ha! Haig, that old hawk--then Secretary of State--couldn't stop a war if he tried and I doubt he really tried.

    Yes, Reagan and Thatcher--there was a fun couple ;-) Not as tight as Bush and Blair got mind you, but I remember how gaga the American Right was about her from the time th Tories named her their leader. Not surprising she went the warrior queen route. She was a star Reagan used to guide his own election by.

    From what I recently read, Spartan teen males were encouraged to go on night raids in the countryside in ancient times and try and sneak up and kill a country Helot or two. No boy scout merit badges for that bunch!!! It was win the battle or come back dead. I doubt push-button killing from afar would impress them.

  23. Thatch still seems pretty popular in the US, wheras here she has lost much of the "love" that people had for her. And many people openly hate her for some of the things that she did to "working-class interests".

    I think the Spartans were history's ultimate warriors. Their bravery and killing ability seems unmatched.

    There was a fabulous series on tv over here called "Warriors" presented by a former US marine. If you haven't seen it, look out for it as it is highly informative and enjoyable. It puts meat on the bones of warfare, the culture surrounding it, and many of the human realities of the periods that major conflicts took place in. I especially liked the episode about the Alamo Scouts, who pulled off some incredible feats in WWII

  24. As you yourself make clear in your text this film relates more to the history of drama than it does to the history of England. Becket's particularly grisly death as he made his way to vespers in that fateful evening in December 1170 couldn't have been portrayed in this film or probably any other if they want a certificate from the British Board of Censors. I was a kid when this was released and I think preferred the ripping yarns of Captain Blood at the time. I think this representation of history in Received English accents was about on its last legs when this film was made. It was released the same year 1964 as A Hard Day's Night which is I suppose the reason why they don't make them like that anymore. After Scouse became sexy they didn't make anything like it had been made since the beginnings of British cinema, although the process was already underway after Saturday Night Sunday Morning became a box office hit in the UK in 1960. I still remember hearing my mother talk about it in mischeivous tones to the woman next door after she went to see it with a friend and I got the idea that it was considered by adults to be a bit of a daring sort of film to watch.

  25. Yes, it seems conservatives over here think about her in a paper thin way: as the great anti-socialist the Russians called The Iron Lady. How ironic she was sacked by her own party. I so looked forward to seeing her tuned out by the great British electorate.

    If American conservatives bothered to look at her record more closely, they might not be so rosy about her. I remember the French right still liked Nixon after his Watergate resignation. Never could figure how daft they could be on him.

    I will look for "Warriors". I'm sure its around on The History Channel over here. Thanks Oakie.

  26. Yes, I read later in a book about Becket's actual death. Most over done if you ask me --I suspect King Henry imported some mafioso "goodfellas" from New Jersey to do that grisly job.

    I, too, much preferred "Captain Blood" when I first saw this film, AA---the early scenes of Becket and Henry larking about with the ladies had a bigger impact on me than the history or lack thereof.

    It was in my later teens that I started to appreciate the more subtle aspects of the screenplay, and of course that great acting combination. I suppose 'Becket" had to be a throw back with Richard Lester work and the "angry young man" and irreverent young teenager" film that were breaking out. American studio movies were several years behind at this point--many still doing big budget musicals like "Camelot" when popular tastes were shifting toward smaller features like "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde" films more in the vein of the French New Wave and director Jack Clayton and Karel Reisz's stark dramas. The latter did "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning " if memory serves.

    My own introduction to British cinema came around ten or eleven, when I stayed up to watch "The Knack...and How to Get It" on television when my folks were out at some gathering at a neighbors house. It was advertised by the San Francisco station broadcasting it that "this movie is adult in nature" and "only be shown after 10 pm." It seemed very cheeky and daring to me at the time.

  27. Yes, Warriors was on the History Channel here, which may be the same people.

    Thatch got her cumuppence when she went to China and the Chinese Premier apparently vented his fury on her. She was so shaken by this attack that she later collapsed. Live by the sword .....

    As for Nixon, maybe something was lost in translation.
    Most US Presidents seem to make a major faux pas at some time or other. Democrats tend to have affairs and Republicans seem to be guilty of corruption somewhere along the line. JFK, Slick Willy, Bush jnr, Reagan, Nixon seem to fit the profile. If they don't do so, they tend to be labelled "boring" like Ford or Carter.
    I wonder who the last president was who didn't go to war was.

  28. The midnight movies that first happened in Birmingham (so far as I know) in the late 60s often featured this kind of cheeky soft porn type film, a cinematic equivalent of a 'dirty postcard' or otherwise it was the Hammer Horrors, both were very popular back then.

  29. Exactly, AA-- a bit of a forbidden glimpse inot the fun of young adulthood.

    Ah yes--the Hammer Horror films! "Dracula, Prince of Darkness" was a big late night favorite or mine and some of my friends, as well as "Hound of the Baskervilles" with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Films like that and "The Gorgon" from 1965 scared the wits out of me as a very young lad. Nowadays horror films are more brutal than scary--a legacy of excess special effects and our more graphic-sated younger co-horts.

  30. Thatcher got a cumuppance? I'll have to look that incident up. I always just picture her and Ronnie on his ranch in California or somewhere going about on a golfcart and figuring ways to privatize things. (Speaking of private, wonder what First Lady Nancy thought of all that golf cart coziness.)

    Yes, Democrats are more prone to sex scandals it seems. The Republicans haven't had a good womanizer in the White House since Warren Harding way back in the 1920's. (The mistress, Nan Britton, later wrote a book about their clandestine trysts in the White House and even suggested that the First Lady at the time poisoned her husband while he was il as punishment for his affair.)
    All we know for certain is that President Harding died in a San Francisco hotel room from an apparent stroke two and half years into his term in 1923. Miss Britton lived to the ripe old age of 94 in1991. A few more years and Clinton probably would have made a pass at her. ;-)

    Yes, I think Jerry Ford was the last President not to go to war in some way---it was right at the end of the Vietnam Era and the public wanted peace for a time and The Brass Hat Generals at The Pentagon needed a chance to reload.