Saturday, November 19, 2022

#2,864. Becket (1964) - Peter O'Toole Triple Feature


In 1968, Peter O’Toole played England’s King Henry II in The Lion in Winter, a movie I adore. In that award-winning film, O’Toole’s Henry was a force of nature, an older but strong and able-bodied king whose sole purpose was to secure the throne for his chosen successor.

Produced four years earlier, in 1964, director Peter Glenville’s Becket takes us to an earlier point in Henry’s reign, when he was younger, more inexperienced. Played, as in that later film, by Peter O’Toole, Becket reveals that it was Henry’s friendship with good friend Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) that shaped him into the king he would eventually become.

Based on a stage play by French dramatist Jean Anouilh, Becket is set in the latter half of the 12th century, when King Henry II (O’Toole) and his close comrade Thomas Becket (Burton) spend their days hunting, drinking, and cavorting with women. When a quarrel with the church over taxation reaches an impasse, Henry appoints the learned Becket as his Chancellor, despite the fact he’s a Saxon (Henry and the other nobles, as well as the bishops and leaders of the church, are all Normans).

While in France fighting the armies of King Louis (John Gielgud), Henry receives a dispatch that the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) has died. In an effort to finally bring the church under his control, Henry names Becket the new Archbishop. Though reluctant at first, Becket eventually embraces his new role, and, staying true to the position, sides with the church over Henry.

Though angry, Henry still harbors a deep love for his old friend, and is genuinely heartbroken when Becket (who Henry tried to prosecute on a false charge of embezzlement) flees England for a private meeting with the Pope (Paolo Stoppa). It’s when Becket returns home, however, that a tragedy occurs, a series of events that will forever change King Henry II and, indeed, England itself.

Much as he did in The Lion in Winter, O’Toole’s Henry bellows and huffs through a fair portion of Becket, hurling insults at his mother the Empress (Martita Hunt), his wife Eleanor (Pamela Brown), and even his son and intended successor (Riggs O’Hara). When he’s in Thomas Becket’s company, however, the king seems much happier, enjoying their adventures together. It’s clear that Henry also respects Thomas, despite the fact he is a Saxon, and considered inferior to the Normans. He seeks Becket’s advice on all matters, and takes joy in raising him in rank, much to the annoyance of those around him.

Already familiar with O’Toole’s interpretation of Henry II in The Lion in Winter, it was interesting to see this earlier take on the character, when the king was not only rough around the edges, but also inexperienced. Henry is still strong-willed and prone to fits of rage, but time and again Becket keeps him in line, offering sound advice every step of the way. When the two have a falling out, it’s Henry who suffers, unable to cope with the loss of his dear friend. It drives him to despair. O’Toole masterfully conveys all aspects of Henry’s personality; his strengths, his weaknesses, his joy, anger, and heartbreak.

Alas, Burton doesn’t fare quite as well as O’Toole, though I don’t think his performance is the problem (I get a sense the issue lies either with the original play or Edward Anhalt’s script). From the early scenes, where Becket is the king’s friend and confidant, to later, when, as the archbishop, he finds God and becomes pious (almost insufferably so), the character is just never that interesting. When together, Burton and O’Toole are wonderful; an early scene in which Henry and Becket face off against a delegation of church leaders is well-executed and highly entertaining. But those moments when the film focuses on Becket alone aren’t nearly as appealing, and I found myself longing for O’Toole to once again take center stage.

Stylistically, Becket and The Lion in Winter couldn’t be more different. Becket is a big-budget affair with an epic sensibility, whereas The Lion in Winter is more intimate, a showcase for its performers rather than their surroundings. Still, I would highly recommend a double feature of both films, which together provide an amazing character arc for a man who has gone down in history as one of England’s finest monarchs.

And as far as I’m concerned, Peter O’Toole was born to play Henry II. Watch these two films and you’ll never picture anyone else in the role.
Rating: 8 out of 10

No comments: