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Becket: A friend in need…!


‘Becket’ (1964), which finds a place in the list of best of Hollywood cinema, is based on the original French play, ‘Becket’ ou ‘l’honneur de Dieu’ (‘Becket’ or ‘The Honour of God’) by French dramatist, Jean Anouilh. 

The play gave its first performance in Paris in 1959. Soon it opened on Broadway with Laurence Olivier as Becket and Anthony Quinn as King Henry II in a production directed by Peter Glenville, who later went on to direct the film version. The play then opened in London in a production by Peter Hall with Eric Porter and Christopher Plummer enacting the two roles, respectively. Incidentally actor, Peter O’Toole was originally signed to play Henry II in the stage production. A member of Peter Hall’s then founded Royal Shakespeare Company, O’Toole was already in line to play the part of Henry II in Hall’s stage production of ‘Becket’. He however broke the contract when offered the more lucrative film role of T E Lawrence, in David Lean’s film, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962). Hall then went to the extent of unsuccessfully trying to sue ‘Lawrence…’ producer, Sam Spiegel’s Horizon Pictures for poaching O’Toole.

Hal B Wallis, the producer of ‘Becket’, who had spearheaded many of the finest Warner Bros films in the 1930s and 1940s, including ‘Casablanca’ (1942), had moved over to Paramount by this time. Wallis was already working on ‘Summer and Smoke’ (1961) directed by Peter Glenville, an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1948 play of the same name, when he saw Glenville’s staging of ‘Becket’ in New York. Glenville was a noted British stage director, who had earlier directed two feature films, ‘The Prisoner’ (1955) and ‘Me and the Colonel’ (1958), besides a well-regarded Broadway production of ‘Rashomon’ in 1959. Wallis retained Glenville as the director for the film adaptation of ‘Becket’, though he decided to go with younger actors in the lead roles, replacing Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn. Not surprisingly, he had little difficulty persuading O’Toole to accept the part of Henry II.

Interestingly, the robust lead performances, especially by O’Toole became the highlight of the film. With a scene of flagellation and his apparent homoerotic devotion to Thomas Becket, O’Toole’s interpretation of Henry II in some ways parallels that of T E Lawrence though in this film O’Toole’s character is more calculating and crude.

Burton initially turned the film down because he felt the idea of him playing a saint would cause the press to have a field day. He also said he would be more suited to playing Henry II. Burton even claimed to have been offered either of the main roles. However, according to the producers this was not true, since O’Toole had already been cast as Henry II and Becket had to be the older man. Burton was seven years older than O’Toole.

O’Toole and Burton expressed great mutual respect in interviews and even became drinking buddies during the shoot. While they both had a reputation for living it up, they refrained from alcohol during the initial part of shooting. However, much to the concern of the Paramount studio executives, their resolutions soon fell by the wayside. In fact, the editor of ‘Becket’, Ann Coates, in an interview recalled that the scene of the meeting of Becket and King Henry II on the beach was particularly difficult to edit because they were unable to line up their horses in the proper direction – apparently due to their inebriated state – though they still managed to deliver performances of the highest calibre. The actors nevertheless tried to maintain best behaviour during filming as they were in the company of Donald Wolfit and John Gielgud, who were O’Toole and Burton’s acting mentors, respectively.

The legendary actor, Alec Guinness turned down the role of King Louis, because he “didn’t believe in ‘Becket’ as a film”. He was then replaced by another thespian, John Gielgud, who received an Oscar nomination for appearing in just two scenes in the film.

‘Becket’ was filmed almost entirely in the studio. It was made at Shepperton Studios, England and on location at Alnwick Castle, Bamburgh Castle and Bamburgh Beach in Northumberland. The film was shot over a period of 12 weeks, mostly in sequence.

Composer, Laurence Rosenthal faced a hard time from Wallis, who insisted on a more upbeat score. Rosenthal however held his ground. One of the main musical themes in the film is an adaptation of a Welsh folk tune, which actress, Siân Phillips taught Rosenthal.

When ‘Becket’ premiered, Glenville was aghast to discover that Wallis had inserted an intermission break about halfway through the film, probably because of its 148 minute length. By far, the film received good reviews and audience support, while grossed $9,164,370 at the box office, earning $3 million in rentals.

While ‘Becket’ won an Academy Award in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, it still holds jointly a record for the most Oscar category losses – 11. The other joint holders with 11 category losses are ‘The Turning Point’ (1977) and ‘The Color Purple’ (1985).

Unavailable for years, ‘Becket’ has been restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the support of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. This restored version premiered in London, in 2003, while the new 35mm prints recently toured the US.

While unquestionably a great showpiece for its two main roles, ‘Becket’ has not weathered particularly well as a play, at least in English-speaking countries. In fact, during the initial stage production some drama critics, most notably Brooks Atkinson of the ‘New York Times’, expressed reservations about Anouilh’s approach, especially how he handled Becket’s spiritual transformation. The play was revived in London in 2004 in a production starring Dougray Scott and Jasper Britton, using a grittier and more colloquial translation by Frederic and Stephen Raphael, though similar criticisms still surfaced among many British drama critics. But regardless of the play’s ultimate merit, the film based on it provided a memorable role in King Henry II, and O’Toole easily rose to the challenge.



In 12th Century England, King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), descendant of Norman conquerors, is at odds with the Church because he spends most of his time hunting, drinking, and womanising with his Saxon friend, Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), who also advises him on matters of state. Antagonism between Church and State mounts when the Church refuses to allocate funds for Henry’s battle with France. To tie Becket closer to his court, Henry makes him Chancellor of England, and from this position Becket fights the Church on Henry’s behalf. The two continue to rule England as steadfast friends until Henry impetuously demands payment for a past favour and asks for Becket’s mistress, Gwendolen (Siân Phillips). The honour-bound Becket submits to the king’s request, but Gwendolen takes her own life.

Following the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec (Felix Aylmer), Henry appoints Becket to the archbishopric, despite the protests of most of the clergy and Becket himself, who claims that he cannot serve both God and the King. Becket assumes his office with religious dignity and, finding himself in opposition to Henry’s interference in the Church, resigns as Chancellor of England. Furious because he mistakenly believed that installing his best friend as Archbishop would give him control of the Church, Henry joins forces with Becket’s enemy, the Bishop of London, Gilbert Folliot (Donald Wolfit) in an attempt to bring Becket to trial on false charges of embezzlement.

Becket escapes to France where King Louis VII (John Gielgud) helps him reach the Vatican. Pope Alexander III (Paolo Stoppa) offers him sanctuary in a monastery, and Louis arranges for a final meeting between Becket and Henry. The confrontation between the two former friends is an emotional one, and Henry guarantees Becket’s safe conduct back to England. There, the Saxons give Becket a warm welcome. The frustrated Henry impulsively calls for the elimination of the meddlesome priest, and four barons murder Becket before the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. Stricken by the loss of his friend and filled with guilt, Henry allows himself to be flogged by Saxon monks and then proclaims Becket a saint.



Peter O’Toole is the only person nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for playing the same historical character – King Henry II – in two different films; in ‘Becket’ (1964) and in ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1968).

Actress, Siân Phillips, who plays the role of Gwendolen in ‘Becket’, was Peter O’Toole’s wife at the time of filming.

Peter O’Toole’s crown in ‘Becket’ was made of cardboard.

The recreation of Canterbury Cathedral, built on Shepperton Studios Stage and designed by John Bryan, was the largest single interior set built in Europe up to that time.

‘Becket’ – the play as well as the film – are riddled with factual inaccuracies as dramatist, Jean Anouilh did practically no research once he learned the gist of the real story.

The 1973 Marathi play, ‘Beimaan’ written by Vasant Kanetkar with Prabhakar Panshikar and Satish Dubhashi in the lead was an adaptation of ‘Becket’, with the State versus Church clash replaced by industry versus trade union conflict. ‘Namak Haraam’ (1973) directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and starring Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan was based on ‘Beimaan’. It was also remade in Tamil as ‘Unakkaga Naan’ (1976) with Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan, as also in Malayalam as ‘Anguram’ (1982) starring Prem Nazir and Sukumaran.

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