Sunday, January 15, 2017

Movies on ridding yourself of troublesome priests

Last night I watched Becket, a historical epic from 1964. "Epic" in the realm of film usually implies "really long" and this one moderately qualifies. It's about two and a half hours. It holds up pretty well for that duration, though.

It's what you might call loosely based on the historical record. Thomas Becket is counselor to King Henry II (which he was) his friend and companion in drinking and whoring (hard to tell at this distance). He's also a representative of England's old Saxon guard in the Plantagenet court (quite false, as Becket was really a Norman.) Henry appoints Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking he'll have his own man in the pulpit. Instead the duties of the Church cause Becket to define himself against his king, and their friendship ends.

The inciting incident, by the way, is a priest arrested for "debauching" a nobleman's young daughter, who then tries to escape and is killed by the nobleman's guards. Becket excommunicates the nobleman. This case comes off a little differently in contemporary times. Yes, it seems like an injustice was done to the priest, but the Catholic Church hasn't always had the best record of policing its own.

The two main performances are a fascinating study in contrasts. Peter O'Toole plays Henry, and does bring his blasé charm to the role at times. But Henry isn't a distinguished gentleman. He's a passionate friend and also a petty tyrant, one who's enslaved by his own immature whims. Between his hot-blooded rants and his Van Dyke beard, the character is almost Klingon. And yes, there are questions of what kind of love he has for Becket, the man who spurned him.

Becket is played by Richard Burton, moving through the scene at his own pace. Whatever debauchery he commits in his days as a sensualist takes place off-screen, seeming more theoretical than anything else. He's somewhat self-denying from the first. The change is more that he goes from enjoying the use of power in service to his king to seeking guidance from Heaven. It would be difficult to name another actor who got so much mileage from playing the quiet one, which is why he's perfect here.


susan said...

The one and only time I saw this movie was in 1964 when my high school history teacher arranged a class bus trip to Toronto so we could all see a film about the particular period in English history we were currently studying. While I don't remember the movie at all, other than the actual murder scene with Becket praying at the altar in a grim looking cathedral, what I do recall is being in that large and ornate theatre with my classmates. None of them had been there before and were suitably awed by the surroundings, while sophisticated me was remembering previous dates there with my rich and somewhat older boyfriend (5 years older).

Your review, as usual for you, is excellent (you should be posting them at some film websites). When you mentioned Richard Burton getting a lot of mileage from playing the quiet one I remembered the old John Wayne movie that made me respect him as an actor. It was called 'The Quiet Man' and may well be worth your time if you ever run across it.

Ben said...

I don't know if you remember the name of the theatre your teacher took you to. I did a Google image search for old theatres in Toronto. The Fox Theatre Toronto looks pretty impressive even now. Movie places had more personality in general than they do now. Of course it's possible that the place you saw it isn't there anymore.

I haven't seen The Quiet Man. It looks like quite a change of pace for both John Wayne and John Ford, who as you may have heard made a lot of Westerns together. One funny thing I notice is that both Wikipedia and imdb list a slew of uncredited actors, more than half the cast. My hat is off to whoever tracked down all those names that were nowhere in the credits.

I thank you for the praise. Writing for film websites isn't something I'd considered much, but thinking about it, it could be fun.

susan said...

I should have guessed you'd be interested to know
the name of the place. It was the Imperial.