This past weekend I had an urge to watch the old movie Becket, about Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170 by 4 knights, possibly at the suggestion of King Henry II. The 1964 Paramount film stars Richard Burton as Thomas and Peter O’Toole as whiny King Henry, and is based on the play Becket or the Honour of God by Jean Anouilh.
Becket has been one of my favorite films since I first saw it in the early 70’s. I have a very bad quality videocassette of the movie, which is still watchable enough. I just learned today that it was finally remastered and issued on DVD in May, which I’m putting on my wishlist. Watching the movie this time, however, I was aware that Richard Dawkins must really hate this movie as it seems to represent everything he despises: a highly educated and wise man choosing to die for the honor of God rather than compromise with the King (and to see Henry subject himself to a penance-whipping at Thomas’ tomb to try to regain public support).
The movie, of course, changes history somewhat; apparently the book upon which Anouilh based his play was incredibly inaccurate. Thomas was not a Saxon, he was a fairly well-off Norman. Rather than starting off as Henry’s carousing buddy, Thomas was attached to the Church first; it was actually Archbishop Theobald who recommended him to the King for the Chancellor position. In fact, it seems that the major plot device of the play/movie is totally concocted. But, setting history aside (as we typically do anyway), the movie’s plot is quite nicely done, as we see Thomas changed from a completely emotionless political machine to a martyr when he discovers that the honor of God is something finally worth living and dying for. The movie is also about friendship, and the loss of it. Watching O’Toole act out Henry II’s growing obsession about Thomas reminded me of King Saul’s insanity over David.
It’s such a remarkable story, even if most of it isn’t historically accurate. I’m surprised that it’s taken so long to come to DVD; but then, knowing how Thomas Becket has fallen into disfavor in England, it’s also surprising that the original film wasn’t destroyed as was Becket’s tomb, which was demolished by Henry VIII.
Now, I’m in a mood to watch A Man For All Seasons …