With Wildcat now only a week or so away I’ve been twiddling my thumbs a fair bit waiting for stuff to be ready – some of that time has been spent usefully (I’m almost 1/4 through a first draft of the next book!), but most of the rest has been spent procrastinating on the internet and watching old films. Here’s a quick review of an old classic (and something to keep me busy!):
This is another film that I saw once when too young to appreciate it and recently watched again as an adult history geek. Becket follows the famous story of Henry II’s controversial appointment of his friend, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Featuring legendary actors Peter O’Toole (Henry) and Richard Burton (Becket), this is a pretty long film at 2 ½ hours and if history isn’t your thing, you’ll probably feel it. That said the character stuff transcends the historical context and pretty much anyone should at least give this a go if they want to see good acting at its best.
The story begins with King Henry submitting himself for corporeal punishment by Saxon monks as an act of contrition for Thomas’ death (I’d say spoiler alert but since the film opens with it this hardly counts!). We then jump back to a few years previously where Henry and Thomas are busy wenching in London town, enjoying life and friendship as well as the privileges of their positions. Henry then causes something of a stir by appointing Thomas, a Saxon, as chancellor of Norman-run England – mainly to have somebody he can trust in a position of power and who is sharp enough to counter-argue with the English Bishops who are refusing to help Henry with his cash-flow crisis.
Though the two fall out over Thomas’ lover, Thomas does an admirable job as Henry’s chancellor and organises a campaign in France with great efficiency. Still confident of his loyalty, and his lack of Saxon rebelliousness, Henry appoints him Archbishop of Canterbury, once again to ensure that the position is held by somebody he can trust to be on his side. However, upon appointment Thomas finds himself ever more conflicted between his loyalty to his friend and king and the demands of his own conscience.
Even for the non-history fan, this is a great example of two theatrical heavyweights at their very best (I’m sure I saw an interview where O’Toole claimed they went so far as to stay sober during the filming!).
Though colourful, deep and heartbreaking, the film is not without its flaws and so let’s take a look at those first. For a start this film is looong, so be prepared to commit some time to it if you’re planning a viewing. Beyond the odd murder/attempted murder there is precious little in the way of action to speed things up so if you’re hoping for some dramatic swordfights then you’ll be sadly disappointed. This is a film about dialogue and dramatic performance. Both very good things if you’re up for them but if you can’t watch a film without the clash of steel on steel then frankly, don’t bother with this one. Whether that’s an actual flaw or not, I leave up to you.
I’d say the only real flaw that properly grated on me was the portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Queen Eleanor can be described in many ways, not all of them polite, but one thing one cannot say of her is that she was boring. A powerful landowner in her own right, a famous beauty and a brilliant manipulator of both people and political events, she was every bit Henry’s equal and one of our history’s more interesting characters. In this film she is shown as a stereotypical nagging wife, trying to get Henry more interested in his children. It felt like such a waste and I have to say I was bitterly disappointed (as will anyone who has seen The Lion in Winter).
Connected to this is the equally rubbish portrayal of Henry’s mother, Queen Matilda; another interesting historical character who is shown as just a boring, nagging old woman. We know that these women (and Henry’s relationship with them) are worth so much more than this and again, I felt cheated whenever she was on screen. Similarly, it didn’t help that they had all of Henry’s boys running and playing together as one unruly gang, when we know for a fact that Richard and John barely knew each other until adulthood. Henry is shown paying them almost no attention at all and decides to crown Young Henry almost on a whim. I know we’re supposed to be focusing on Henry’s relationship with Thomas and how much the rest of his life fades into the background, but for those of us who know anything about him, it does grate quite a bit. Even if we didn’t know Henry, the notion of a European king not caring at all about how his heir/heirs are raised is ludicrous, much less a man so invested in the expansion of his kingdom.
Right, flaws done, now onto the plus points.
Once again I’m going to refer to The Lion in Winter; Peter O’Toole of course plays the same character in that film a few years later and I found it brilliant watching this film knowing what lies ahead of him. His portrayal of Henry feels spot-on, a great mix of selfish man-child and cunning politician, one eye constantly on the big picture of his dynasty but his well-noted short temper and passionate nature constantly getting in the way. He is both hilariously funny and tragically dramatic, flirting with ham in a way that in another man’s hands would be silly but in his comes across as goldilocks.
He is, as usual, wonderfully quotable with both dramatic lines;
‘Will no-one rid me of this meddlesome priest? A priest who mocks me? Are all around me cowards like myself?’
(I know the real line is ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk?’ but this is catchier!)
And with funny ones;
‘No one ever paid the Swiss with principles!’
I find it impressive that, as the viewer, we mostly see Henry as the selfish, short-tempered and unreasonable type, and yet we still end up feeling so much sympathy for him. For all his ill-treatment it is painfully clear that Henry loves Thomas like a brother and that what he wants more than anything is for Thomas to love him back.
The whole film is dedicated to the relationship between these men who go from best friends to arch enemies without ever truly hating each other. This leads us nicely on to the other great pro of this film; Richard Burton.
He too has great dramatic/tragic lines;
‘So long as Becket must improvise his honour day to day, he will serve you faithfully.’
Most of what he talks about is quite profound though he is not without humour early on – the back and forth with Henry about the newly-invented forks is excellent.
Despite knowing full well that the real Thomas Becket was far from being quite as saint-like (I know, irony) as Burton portrays him here, I found myself very much engaged by his performance. Even though I knew better I sympathised and admired the character he played. He shows Becket’s predicament very well and plays the calm and determined priest to O’Toole’s passionate and blustering King Henry magnificently. The performance is less…obvious, but no less powerful for being subtle.
Overall I found this a thoroughly enjoyable film. The dialogue, which is pretty much all the film is there for, is spot on throughout, the distinctive voices of Burton and O’Toole helping to make the whole thing a real showcasing of acting talent. If you’ve a couple of hours to spare and don’t need a car chase or a duel to keep your attention, give this film a try, you’ll be impressed! (And don’t miss The Lion in Winter to see Peter O’Toole nailing this role a second time)