Twice in a 500-year period there was a bold and ambitious British king named Henry who had a capable, engaging chancellor and friend named Thomas, who was forced to oppose his king over attacks upon the Church. Each Thomas resigned as chancellor and heroically followed his conscience, despite cruel persecution, indictment on false charges, and finally martyrdom. Each was ultimately canonized as a saint. These two stories have both been made into plays, which were then adapted as Academy Award-winning — and faith-affirming — films.
In a way the 12th-century events of Becket, which is the earlier story (and also the earlier play, and the earlier film), play as a kind of dress rehearsal for the more momentous 16th-century events related in A Man for All Seasons. Thomas Becket opposed Henry II over such church-state quarrels as juridical authority over clerics accused of crimes. The issue at stake between Thomas More and Henry VIII was far more serious: Henry proclaimed himself "Supreme Head of the Church in England," and, with the blessing of his new Anglican Church, divorced his wife Catherine and remarried his mistress Anne Boleyn.
But Becket was obligated to resist the comparatively lesser evils of Henry II much more strenuously than did More those of Henry VIII. The reason was the other hat each Thomas wore in addition to that of chancellor: Whereas More was a layman and a husband and father, Becket had been made (at Henry’s insistence) Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England. Thus, while More had the luxury of being able to retire as gracefully as possible from public life and trying, for the sake of his own life and his family, to avoid a direct confrontation with Henry, Becket was bound in office to defend the Church’s interests actively and publicly even in the face of threats and dangers.
It’s a duty that Richard Burton’s Thomas Becket takes as seriously as did the historical saint. In fact, even before he is made Archbishop, the moment Henry (Peter O’Toole) proposes him for that office, Thomas immediately perceives what the king does not: that the duties of the See of Canterbury will inevitably bring him into conflict with the king’s interests. The prospect alarms him. Until that point he has been the king’s closest friend and beloved companion, and has served him faithfully in all things. Although he knows Henry’s interests are opposed to the Church’s, he doesn’t trouble himself about it. But he sees at once that as Archbishop he will be unable to take so blasé an attitude: and he strenuously objects to Henry’s plan. But Henry, believing that Thomas Becket as Archbishop can only mean a confederate in Canterbury, will not be gainsaid.
It’s a mistake the king will come to regret. Where Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons is a virtuous but pragmatic man whose main priorities are (a) staying alive and (b) more importantly, not violating his conscience, Thomas Becket in Becket is driven by a more high-minded ideal: honor. Honor is in a way a driving theme of this film, both before and after Becket’s ordination as Archbishop. In an early scene, Henry idly wonders what sort of honor Becket finds in Henry’s service, and Becket struggles to respond: "Honor is a private matter within; it’s an idea, and every man has his own version of it." Henry is amused: "How gracefully you tell your king to mind his own business."
But Becket has no better answer to give. Lacking any real ordering principle in his life, he can only "improvise his honor from day to day." Yet even now he is haunted by the possibility that there might be something more for him: "What if Becket should find his true honor?" He speaks here of himself in the third person, as if unsure who he really is, or aware of some absence or need at the center of his being which disqualifies him from being a self-possessed "I."
But when he is forced to accept the episcopal office, a great transformation comes over Thomas, as he finds his true honor in the service of God — or rather, he amends, of "the honor of God." For though Becket genuinely loves God himself, and earnestly prays for grace and enlightenment, it is the defense of God’s honor and that of the visible Church against Henry’s ambitions that Becket sees as the great duty of his office.
The film takes some liberties with history. Thomas Becket was in reality a Norman, but the film makes him a Saxon in order to generate cultural and ethnic tension with Henry, the Norman monarch. And while Becket did undergo a dramatic spiritual transformation at his episcopal ordination, among other things abandoning the luxury and ostentatious display that had previously characterized his life under Henry, and proceeding to give his worldly goods to the poor, the historical Becket was never the libertine the fictionalized Henry fondly recalls drinking and wenching with.
And, like many movies that include a pope as a supporting character, Becket gives us a pope who manifests political calculation but not much conviction; which is hardly fair to the historical Alexander III. (To be fair to the film, the pope is described [by King Louis VII of France] as a "holy man"; and certainly he doesn’t say or do anything scandalous — but neither does he especially impress us with his holiness).
I said above that the events of Becket play like a dress rehearsal for A Man for All Seasons. That may not be entirely fair either; but in the end I can’t help thinking of the two films together: and, beside the blazing brilliance of the later film, even a fine production like Becket suffers from comparison. Burton’s Thomas Becket is much less accessible and attractive than Scofield’s Thomas More; and even Becket’s witty and Oscar-winning screenplay, written by Edward Anhalt from the Jean Anouilh stage play, pales beside Robert Bolt’s incomparable adaptation from his own play, passages of which were adapted directly from More’s own writings and records.
But Becket is nonetheless a masterpiece, reverent, well-made, literally spectacular. Besides the witty screenplay with many memorable lines, there are splendid performances, particularly from the two leads. Peter O’Toole roars magnificently both in laughter and in rage; his Henry is a simple, direct, utterly unprincipled man who sees the world in two great categories: (a) things he wants, and (b) obstacles to getting them. It’s a character O’Toole was born to play (in fact, years later he played the same king again in a completely different film, The Lion in Winter, a black comedy also based upon a play). As for Burton, if his Becket is less personable than Scofield’s More, he is still an impressive figure of iron conviction and austere reserve.
The film also benefits from its glorious locations in the castles and countryside of England, and from the vivid and striking cinematography. The high ritual of ecclesiastical ceremony — the consecration of Becket as Archbishop, the excommunication of an aristocrat — is reproduced in impressive and reverent detail, and the magnificent score includes some fine Latin chant.
The screenplay, well adapted by Robert Bolt from his own stage play, is fiercely intelligent, deeply affecting, resonant with verbal beauty and grace. Scofield, who for years starred in the stage play before making the film, gives an effortlessly rich and layered performance as Sir Thomas More, saint and martyr, the man whose determined silence spoke more forcefully than words, and who then spoke even more forcefully by breaking it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.