Becket (1964)

Director: Peter Glenville
Screenwriter: Edward Anhalt
Adapted from: Becket or the Honour of God by Jean Anouilh
Cast: Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Paolo Stoppa, Martita Hunt, Pamela Brown
Nominations: Picture, Director – Peter Glenville, Actor – Richard Burton, Actor – Peter O’Toole, Supporting Actor – John Gielgud, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography (color), Editing, Art Direction (color), Costume Design (color), Score (original), Sound
Wins: Adapted Screenplay

Honor is a private matter within; it’s an idea, and every man has his own version of it.

Thomas Becket, Becket

Nine-hundred years ago in Europe two supreme authorities controlled the lives of the citizenry: the crown and the Church.  In throughout the 1160s in England, those entities butted heads in the form of King Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  As with yesterday’s film, Becket plays around with recorded history (though this case has more to do with playwright Jean Anouilh basing his play on an inaccurate history), but the inevitable fate of Becket is unchanged.

The film’s Becket is portrayed as a native Saxon with Henry II and the ruling class and clergy being of Norman descent 100 years after William the Conqueror invaded England and fulfilled his epithet.  As essentially a lower-class person climbing the ranks into the upper class, Becket is having to prove himself at every turn—especially as everyone he interacts with questions his motives whenever the opportunity arises.  For some, that would create quite the chip, but Becket takes it all in stride.  His demeanor is that of an underachiever.  Because no one expects much of him, he doesn’t do anything to distinguish himself, for good or bad.  For those who’ve played Dungeons & Dragons, this Becket is probably as close to true neutral as a character can be.  He’s loyal to (above all) England and (second) Henry, but it seems that’s only because England is his home and Henry is his King: had he been born in France, for instance, he’d be just as loyal to France and King Louis VII.  That’s not to say he doesn’t have honor or a personal code, just that he knows there’s no one who’ll commit to him, so he decides there’s nothing worth committing to.  Even when Henry appoints him as Lord Chancellor, his dedication is to the duties of the position and nothing more.  Sure, it appears that he’s on Henry’s side during the meeting with the Bishop of London, but that’s only because Henry’s side helps England.

Henry, unfortunately for him, takes Becket’s support as a personal endorsement of his policies and desire, and recommends him to Pope Alexander III for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury.  In what is among the most fascinating developments of character in film, Becket discovers a newfound purpose in becoming a leader in the Church.  The importance of this transformation is impressed upon us during the scene of his consecration.  This scene easily could have been streamlined (even more so than it already is compared to the actual ceremony), but the film spends a full five minutes for us to witness Becket’s elevation from priest (in name) to archbishop.  The time spent on the ceremony shows us that not only should we recognize that this position carries incredible weight for Becket, but that it will dictate the remainder of the narrative.  Thomas Becket is no longer a subject of the king: he is now a conduit of God’s love, mercy, grace, and will.

What follows is an unexpecting and exciting change of direction for Becket as he has finally discovered purpose in/for his life.  The reaction that Brother John—and Becket himself—has to Becket’s prayer after learning one of the king’s nobles had a priest murdered solidifies Becket’s full acceptance of the responsibilities of his new role in Church and in life.  Where before, Becket’s honor was with whomever he was aligned, it is now and forever beheld to the Church and God.  It’s never too late to find meaning, to find purpose.  Becket found his, and he pays the ultimate price to keep it—and what good is honor and purpose if we aren’t willing to sacrifice for it?

My Lord, Jesus, I find it difficult to talk to you.  What can I say… I, who have turned away from you so often with indifference?  I have been a stranger to prayer, undeserving of your friendship and your love.  I’ve been without honor and feel unworthy.  I am a weak and shallow creature, clever only in the second-rated worldly arts, seeking only my comfort and pleasure.  I gave my love, such as it was, elsewhere, putting service to my earthly king before my duty to you.  But now, they’ve made me the shepherd of your flock and guardian of your Church.  Please, Lord, teach me now how to serve you with all my heart, to know at last what it really is to love, to adore, so that I may worthily administer your kingdom here upon earth—and find my true honor in observing your divine will.  Please, Lord… make me worthy.

Archbishop Thomas Becket, Becket