Becket (1964)





Director:     Peter Glenville.

Starring:      Richard Burton (Thomas Becket),  Peter O'Toole (King Henry II),  John Gielgud (King Louis VII of France),  Gino Cervi (Cardinal Zambelli),  Paolo Stoppa (Pope Alexander III),  Donald Wolfit (Bishop Folliot),  David Weston (Brother John),  Martita Hunt (Empress Matilda),  Pamela Brown (Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine),  Sin Phillips (Gwendolen),  Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury),  Inigo Jackson (Robert de Beaumont).

under Henry II, 1154-1189;  Becket eliminated because he was in the way of the King




Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"In the year 1066, William the Conqueror crossed from France with his Norman army and conquered the Saxons of Britain at the Battle of Hastings. Henry II, his great grandson, continued to rule over the oppressed Saxon peasants, backed by the swords of his Barons and by the power of his imported Norman clergy."

King Henry II goes to the cathedral wearing his crown and red cloak. He takes off the crown, the cloak and his shirt and kneels before the tomb of Becket. He talks to the tomb saying he is here to do his penance and to make his peace with Becket. He is doing this because he needs the support of the Saxon peasants.

Flashback. Henry remembers the happy times with Becket when they were out drinking and wenching. The two of them have to make a quick exit when the parents of a young woman get up to see what their daughter is doing. They ride back to the castle.

Henry takes a bath then talks with Becket. Henry made Becket a nobleman and his Norman Barons resent it. They hate the Saxon Becket. Becket says: ". . . one always hates what one wrongs." The Normans seized the Saxon lands, burned their homes and raped their sisters. Henry tells Becket not to blame him, but his great grandfather William the Conqueror. He also says that Becket is a collaborator with Norman rule. Becket replies: "One collaborates to live."

Henry and Becket go to the meeting of the Council. Henry is upset about the resistance he is getting to a tax increase. He feels it necessary to ask the question of who rules the land: the church or him, the king? Henry particularly does not like the church practice of judging the clergy accused of civil crimes in their own ecclesiastical courts.

Henry announces that he is reviving the office of the Chancellor, keeper of the Lionís Seal, and is naming Thomas Becket to the post. This takes Becket by surprise. He says Becket will "checkmate" the clergy, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. He puts on Becketís finger a ring of the Great Seal of England. Henry goes on to say that he never makes a decision without consulting Becket.  He tells the clergy that they must remember that Becket works for him, not them.

Henry and his soldiers are soon to cross over the English Channel to take back the Norman towns conquered by Louis VII of France. And to do this he needs money. The Archbishop resists Henry and they dispute the matter. Traditionally, the church has been exempted from the tax and the Archbishop wants to keep it that way. Henry says he has hired 3,000 Swiss soldiers to help fight the French and he absolutely has to pay them.

The two friends go out on a hunt with the Barons, but they get separated from them because they raced each other. They stop at a cabin. The King discovers a pretty red-headed girl hiding in the cabin. Henry wonders if he should take her to the castle as a whore.

Becket goes outside to get a drink from his saddle bags.  A young man tries to kill Becket with a knife. Becket is cut on the hand, but throws the man down and the fellow runs away. The Chancellor tells the King that his horse bit him. Henry laughs. Wounded in the service of his King, Becket, says Henry, deserves a reward. Becket says he fancies the girl. Henry says he fancies the girl himself. He gives Becket the girl on the condition that one day he respond in kind to Henry. Becket agrees. As he leaves, Becket gives the father of the girl some money and tells him not to worry for no one will come for the girl.

At the castle Becket visits the pretty Gwendolyn playing a string instrument. He and Henry are off to France and war tomorrow. She is Welsh and was a kind of spoils of war. But she is in love with Becket now. But Becket canít stand the thought of his being loved.

Henry comes up to visit Gwendolyn. He tells Becket that he wants Gwendolyn, favor for favor. Becket says: "I am your servant, My Lord." He challenges Becket to tell him he cares for Gwendolyn. Becket does not give an answer. He agrees to the deal.

Gwendolyn is very upset with Becket. She says he has never found anything in this world he cares for and Becket agrees. She walks away. Becket seems sad.

Henry comes with the cabin girl and chastises Becket for being so forgetful about the young lass. The young woman asks Becket if she should undress, but Becket only gives a sad laugh. Henry goes to see Gwendolyn, but finds that she has taken her own life. He rushes to Becket to tell him what happened and asks Becket for help because he is frightened.

The girl is taken away by a guard. Henry says that now Becket will hate him and so he will not be able to trust Becket from now on. Becket tells him to rest easy. He will serve His Majesty faithfully. To himself, Becket asks: ". . . where is Becketís honor?"

In Normandy Becket successfully negotiated for the surrender of a town. But the Barons are mad at this because they wanted plunder. One Baron says in disgust: "What a mentality!"

A young Saxon monk named John tries to kill Becket, but Becket and a soldier subdue him. He talks to the would-be assassin and learns the Saxon wanted to kill him because Becket is a collaborator. Becket tells the guard to send the monk back to England and his monastery.

Becket tells Henry that back home the power of Bishops is rising daily. Soon it will rival Henryís power. Becket says they should take over the church. Amazed at Becketís audacity, Henry playfully calls him a monster.

The next day Henry learns that the Archbishop of Canterbury has died. Becket tells Henry that whoever he appoints to the office will be against him. Henry decides to make Thomas Becket the Archbishop. Becket laughs until Henry tells him to shut up. He is in earnest about this. Becket says this frightens him and tells the King not to do this. Henry insists. Becket will leave for England tonight.

Bishop Folliot comes to the cathedral. Becket is handing out food and clothing to the poor. He welcomes the bishop, who is skeptical of Becket, but is here to consecrate him. Becket himself is really enjoying the job.

The next day Becket is made a bishop. After the ceremony, now as Archbishop, Becket walks out of the church and is warmly greeted by the people.

Becket speaks with the Saxon monk John. John will not kneel to the Archbishop. His superiors tell Becket that he is very stubborn and they have even had to whip him at times. Becket decides to keep John with him.

Bishop Folliot arrives. A priest has been accused of debauching a girl and he is to be tried in civil court. This cannot be allowed, says the Bishop. He can only be tried in an ecclesiastical court. Another messenger arrives to report that the priest in question tried to escape and the soldiers killed him.

Brother John listens in on Becketís humble prayer. By the time Becket finishes the prayer, John is won over to his side. Now he kisses Becketís hand.

Henry is very bored in the castle. His mother tells him that Becket will never come. He is too busy being kind to the poor. Henry argues with his wife. Henry think sheís boring. Brother John arrives with a message. Becket wants Lord Gilbert, father of the debauched girl, to be tried for the crime of murder. Henry becomes furious and kicks everyone out of the room in a rage.

Henry comes to visit Becket. He wants to know why Becket send a messenger instead of coming himself? He also wants to know what game the Archbishop is playing. Henry quickly learns that Becket has really assumed the identity of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This makes him furious again as he was the one who put Becket in the position.

Becket says he is going to excommunicate Lord Gilbert. Henry responds: "You are demented." He says that Becket has betrayed him and he seeks power for himself. Becket has changed because, as he says: ". . . I finally discovered a real honor to defend." The honor of God. Becket gives back the Chancellorís ring to Henry. Henry says he loved Becket but Becket never loved him. He leaves the cathedral.

Henry visits Bishop Folliot and tells him he hates Becket now. He wants to charge Becket with some crime such as embezzlement when he was Chancellor. The Bishop says that if this charge proves to be true, they would try Becket under canon law and the King would decide Becketís punishment.

Three Lords come to Becket to tell him that as soon as the excommunication of Lord Gilbert is performed, Becket will be arrested for embezzlement. Becket will not budge. He goes ahead with the excommunication service. Becket is arrested by the Lord Sheriff of London.

Becket comes to court for the third and last time. Henry gets into another argument with his wife in which he says he does not even like his own children. He tells her that she never has been a real wife to him. And Becket was his friend. Then he turns his wrath on his mother saying that she only tolerated him.

Becket appears and forbids the judge to pass judgment upon him because he is endangering his own mortal soul. The judge backs down and Becket leaves.

Henry chews out Bishop Folliot and the judge saying that they have to stop Becket from seeing the pope or all of England may be put under Papal interdict. They are to see to it that the Archbishop does not leave England.

Becket dresses in monkís robes and hood and sneaks out. Brother John and he ride their horses to the coast of England where a ship awaits them. They get on the small ship and sail away.

The Bishop and the case judge travel to France to see King Louis. Henry wants Becket back. The fugitive has taken refuge in the Abbey of San Martin. Louis says he does not know the whereabouts of Becket.  The two envoys leave. Louis has Becket brought to him. The French King offers Becket his royal protection. Becket tells the King that he is moving on to Rome. The King cautions him that Henry may have provided bribes to certain of the men around the Pope. He tells Becket to be very cautious.

The English bishop and judge arrive at the Vatican and see Becket and Brother John already waiting to see the Pope. Becket goes in to see the Pope. The Pope tells him that it is very regrettable that Becket split the church into two parties. The church has to live within the framework of the state. Becket asks the Pope for permission to be just an ordinary priest. He says he does this to save the church from any embarrassment. The Pope, however, doesnít like the idea because the church cannot surrender totally to the state. He will remain Archbishop but maintain the position in a monastic retreat for awhile. Becket asks to go to the Abbey at San Martin in France. The Pope agrees to this.  After Becket leaves, the Pope says it will be a very long retreat for Becket.

Becket decides to go back to England. King Louis and his men ride to the coast with Becket. There he meets with King Henry all alone on the beach. Henry complains of being bored. Becket says he will agree to 9 of 10 compromises the church has made to Henry. Henry agrees to allow the refusal to accept the one compromise go. He tells Becket to go back to England.

In France Henry has dinner with the family. He puts his son in his chair. Henry says that he will have his successor crowned in his lifetime. He gives a toast for his successor King Henry III. The coronation will take place as soon as they arrive in England, but it will not take place in Canterbury, but in York.

Henryís mother warns him that his son is not very clever and enemies will use him to get at Henry himself. She also tells him that he has an obsession with Becket that is unhealthy and unnatural. His wife agrees. She says itís always Becket with him! She is going to complain to God, her father and the kings of Europe. Henry chases every family member out of the room. He is left with four loyal nobles. They feed his animosity to Becket. Henry asks will no one rid him of this meddlesome priest? The men take his meaning and will do something about it. They leave the room.

Brother John helps Becket dress. He asks him if this is the day? (The day of a possible assassination attempt.) It could be, says Becket. Brother John is determined to go down fighting. Another Brother comes racing up to Becket to tell him that he had to lock the church doors because there are four armed men outside. Becket tells him to open the doors. He does so and the four nobles enter.

Becket tells them: "One does not carry arms into Godís house. What do you want?" "Your death!" is the reply. Becket says he will continue with the service. Brother John tries to stop the men, but is easily killed with a sword thrust to the gut. Becket comes down to look at the dead Brother. One of the nobles strikes a blow and then all four stab him with their swords.

Back to the present. The brothers whip the back of the King. When they finish the whipping, they leave. The four assassins speak with Henry. He tells them that the murderers must be found. One of the nobles says that the murderers are unknown. Henry says they will be found. "It is time my dear Barons, for all of us to do penance."

Henry goes before the crowd. He announces that the Pope has agreed that Thomas Becket can henceforth be prayed to as a saint. The crowd cheers. Henry goes back in to see the tomb again. He asks Thomas if he is satisfied now?


My first reaction to the movie quite a few years ago was: 

Many give this movie four stars.  But I found Becket (Richard Burton) as Archbishop of Canterbury a bit of a bore and sympathized more with King Henry II (Peter O'Toole), who supported the separation of church and state.  We all know people who we knew as decent become indecent when they get into a position of power.  This seems to have been the case with Becket who refused to compromise leading to a long series of battles with his king.   Another thing that bothered me was the hint of homosexuality in Henry II.  It was strange and tiresome to see a man so obsessed with another that he waxes eloquently upon the man repeatedly.    

Now I find myself more knowledgeable and less critical of the movie and of Becket.  I am more understanding of his psychological problems that led him to do some of what he did.  He was a man who didn't love anyone or anything.  That's a disturbed man.  So I can see that he may have gone a bit overboard when he finally found something he could believe in:  God and the priesthood.  And, today, I wouldn't say I was "disturbed" by the homosexuality element.  I would says it's just interesting now.  King Henry II also had his psychological problems, one of them being obsessed with Becket. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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