By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Betrayed by his friend.
King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is finding himself at continual odds with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) particularly in their disagreement of taxing the church to help fund Henry’s war with France when the elderly Archbishop suddenly dies Henry decides to appoint his longtime friend Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) into the position. Becket had always shown extreme loyalty towards Henry and many times gotten him out of several jams so Henry expects this will continue in his new role, but finds that Thomas takes his position much more seriously than expected and shifts his loyalty from the king to the almighty, which causes serious conflict between the two.
The film which is directed by Peter Glenville is based on the 1959 stageplay written by Jean Anouilh that starred Laurence Olivier in the role as Becket and Anthony Quinn as Henry. This film version isn’t bad, but not quite the epic spectacle that we are so used to from these types of films from that period. The action is quite minimal and there is a definite staginess. I would have liked more camera movements and even a few scenes with a hand-held to help make it seem a little more authentic and less of a filmed drama. The scene where Henry and Becket are seen riding on horseback appears very corny as it was clearly done in front of a blue-screen. There is also too much music one scene has Henry and Becket running away from a farmhouse after being caught fooling around with a farm girl that has a cartoonish sounding melody that seems completely inappropriate especially for the time period.
Having Henry and Becket go from being friends to bitter enemies seemed to happen too quickly. I got the feeling we were seeing the ‘Cliff Notes’ version of events were they analyze only the important plot points and then quickly moved to the next. I realize the runtime of the film is already long, but spending more time showing the friendship gradually devolve would have been more realistic.
Normally I love Sir John Gielgud and his performance as King Louis VII is amusing, but he is clearly British and speaks with an English accent that doesn’t even come close to sounding French. The part of the Pope is given to an Italian, so the King Louis role should have been done by a Frenchman.
O’Toole is excellent. He has brown hair here instead of his patented blonde and his ability to stay in step with Burton by giving an almost comic performance of a King who is nothing more than an overgrown adolescent is brilliant. The royal food fight is good as are the many putdowns that he gives to both his wife and kids and even his own mother.
Burton is fantastic as expected playing a role different from any of the others that he has done. His piercing blue eyes have never been stronger particularly when he becomes the Archbishop.
The killing scenes done inside the church near the end has some nice camera work and Henry’s final emotional speech as well as his flogging by the monks are all strong and make this worthwhile viewing, but I couldn’t help but feel that we have ‘grown-up’ a bit in the way we do period pieces today and this is one that could use a remake.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: March 11, 1964
Runtime: 2Hours 28Minutes
Director: Peter Glenville
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix streaming