Becket (1964)

*. I recently found myself watching Becket at the same time as I was preparing notes on Cleopatra, a movie that had been released just the year before. Of course both movies are historical costume dramas made in the grand style, both won Academy Awards (Becket was nominated for twelve!), and both star Richard Burton, but I found another parallel more significant.
*. Despite being widely celebrated (Cleopatra was, among its other benchmarks, surely the most famous, or notorious, movie of its time), both films are almost entirely forgotten today.
*. Time was when even popular history books dealing with either figure would have to address their screen versions, pointing out signifcant inaccuracies or liberties taken with the historical record. Today that’s no longer necessary, as nobody comes to a book about Cleopatra or Thomas Beckett with preconceptions based on their memories of Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton needing to be overcome. Indeed, the films aren’t even mentioned in some recent studies.
*. Well, this is one case where I can’t fault the fickle taste of the public. I found Becket to be nearly unwatchable this time out, which was the first time I’d seen it in twenty years. It’s so heavy-handed, so ponderous, so pious, that it makes you feel like you’re visiting a different planet. Did we really think this was great filmmaking sixty years ago?
*. The script gives us lines like “Where honour should be, in me there is only a void.” Such lines are then underscored by musical notations that put the words into bold relief. And they are delivered by Burton in a manner that suggests either (or both) extreme boredom and/or someone already turning to stone. How many movies did Richard Burton ever smile in anyway?
*. I’ve heard that Burton actually wanted to play King Henry. I think that would have worked. He has that air of humourless cruelty I think the real Henry, and the part here, call for. O’Toole as Becket, however, would have been a dicier proposition.
*. Peter O’Toole does try his best to liven things up, but he’s stuck in a ridiculous part that barely makes any sense. Did you not know that he loves Thomas? Then he’ll tell you. Again. And again. But in what sense does he love him? How can such a long, overwritten film dealing with only two characters fail to give us any real sense of who they are, or of their motivations? They’re just voices and costumes.
*. About the only amusing thing is all the homoerotic stuff. I can’t call this a subtext because there’s nothing secondary or hidden about it. It’s so pervasive and explicit it starts to be funny after a while. I think there are even three scenes where Burton and O’Toole are lying or sitting in bed together (a couple of times after throwing a woman out).
*. It’s hard to overstate how blatant this is. The two men are more than just boon companions. As noted, Henry is constantly crying about his love for Thomas. His mother upbraids him for his “unhealthy and unnatural” attachment and his wife complains of his neglecting her.
*. On the DVD commentary O’Toole addresses this by saying that “to put it in terms of homosexual and heterosexual is to miss the point. It was love.” What he means is nothing platonic, but more a laddish, locker-room kind of thing. But then O’Toole says how, in a locker-room, “blokes often give each other a rub, if you follow me.” Then he breaks into laughter. So yes, we get it. We can’t miss it.
*. I wonder where this comes from. I don’t think Jean Anouilh, who wrote the play the film was based on, or screenwriter Edward Anhalt were gay. Homosexuality was still a crime in England at the time, and yet it’s not like they were hiding anything here. Is there a political point being made? I’m not sure what it could be.
*. But, as I say, this is the only thing that I found interesting in the film. A few years later O’Toole would return as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) which at least had a bitchy, soap-opera charm to it I still enjoy. Come to think of it,even Cleopatra is more fun. Becket is only a turgid and fusty historical drama of the kind I’m relieved they don’t make any more.

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