PETER O’TOOLE AND RICHARD BURTON, two of Britain’s premier thespians of the mid-20th century, are each other’s perfect foil and ‘Becket’ their ideal vehicle. O’Toole as Norman king Henry II: debonair, worldly, so slender as to appear fragile, his smirk, penetrating blue eyes, and a wayward lock of blonde hair belying the crown upon his head. Burton his Saxon servant: earthy, no show-stopping beauty but solidly shaped, cagey, and a leveling gaze that brooks neither foes nor fatuous friends. They are men of ambition and opportunity, respectively—complementary yet distinct objectives that remain compatible only so long as Becket’s opportunities are derived solely from Henry’s ambition. Henry is covetous and blind—he gives of his heart, but not of his hand—and Becket survives as his lapdog only so long as he has no honor of his own to lose. It begins as a fruitful relationship, but also one doomed from the first.
To watch this dissolution is to love and despise Henry at once. Facing the stern, stubborn Becket, who defies his King as well as our sympathy, we cannot help but feel sorry for the tortured monarch, even as his temper and whimsy give Becket just cause for every one of his rebellions. By today’s standards, perhaps O’Toole oversells his part (even clutching his ostensibly broken heart at one point and collapsing to the floor) but as he oft reminds us, “[he] is the king!” and seems convinced that the grandeur of his office only befits a man with such deep emotions as he. Although his physical form leaves no great impression in those towering castle chambers, he dominates them all the same with his spry movements, booming proclamations, and fiery fits of anger directed at anyone close enough to affect him—and yet not be Becket. His diatribes against his wife and family are particularly scathing and as bleakly humorous as they are tragic. One such, to his wife: “Your body, madam, was a desert that duty forced me to wander in alone.”
In comparison, Becket is an impenetrable stone. He serves his master when it serves him, when it allows him to survive, and to ascend in stature. When standing alone he gazes off into the distance (as only Burton can do) and feels not a thing. We see no pleasure that he derives in this, merely a survival instinct with brief flashes of decency. Yet never intimacy. And when Becket finally does find his honor, or rather, that of God, it seems almost as much an escape as it does a discovery; he assumes the mantle of religion, and thus God’s honor becomes his own, relieving him of his own consciousness, his own joys, losses, or aspirations. He is God’s man, for God is greatest. This transition, although sensible for Becket’s character (at least as presented in the film, which O’Toole readily acknowledges as apocryphal history in his commentary), is not communicated too efficiently to the audience. The transition of Becket’s allegiance from Henry to God is a little too abrupt, particularly given how doggedly Becket adheres to his newfound principles in the film’s latter half. However, there is no questioning Burton’s decision once it is made, only director Peter Glenville’s depiction of it. In any event, Becket never looks completely natural in his glorious raiment, and this is completely reasonable—he is an up-jumped Saxon deacon who never sought the office, after all, and who ‘wenched his way’ across London. It is difficult to reconcile his character’s physical disparity with an absolute spiritual devotion, but Burton achieves it naturally.
‘Becket’ is a historical epic of sorts, and thus its 2 ½ hour running time are not out of sorts. However, the history merely serves as the arena for what is ultimately a personal drama, a story of unrequited love that takes place at the top of the world. And so the film probably could have been shortened by at least 15 minutes without cutting a single scene, but the need is debatable; the long, wordless establishing shots from one epic vista to another and the and copious time spent observing ecclesiastical procedures are both essential to establishing the scale of this tragedy across time, class, race, oceans, and religion, that is helpful in balancing the theatricality of its presentation. This is reinforced by a patient direction, which allowed the actors to play out their scenes in full in front of a generally sedentary camera. And this is perfectly acceptable, given the scope of the sets involved and the gravitas of the two leading mean, who have no need for exaggerated camera swoops to give their actions credence. But this also gave the editing a slightly stilted feel, as it tried to cut together different angles and situations from scenes that may have been shot in their entirety, and thus diverged from one another more than the usual one step or pregnant pause here or there. The hitches are not constantly intrusive, though during long dialogue scenes (and there is plenty of exposition between these two men) it becomes a slight distraction. Too, when the film broadens its focus to include the French King across the narrow channel, the spectral Pope in Rome, or Becket’s cabal of noblemen, ‘Becket’ loses some of its timeless, Shakespearean sheen and seems much more a product of its era: grand in ambition, slightly hammy, and inconsistently cast between monumental lead presences and hardly-acting amateurs.
Fortunately, the film picks up once again towards its conclusion; once Henry has condemned Becket, the shackles he made for himself constrict ever tighter, and bitter irony turns to cutting despair. And after everything, in a passing moment of wrenching tenderness, Henry kneels at Becket’s tomb and cups his living hand around the Archbishop’s marble ones. And we nearly can believe that they are friends once more.