Sunday, February 12, 2017


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The dire consequences that result when the affairs of the secular state clash with those of the religious establishment are the subject of this 1964 Oscar-nominated film based on the play by Jean Anouilh. It is a theme that dominates another work a few years later, A Man for All Seasons (See the post on that movie). In the latter motion picture, the clash is between King Henry VIII and Thomas More. Here, the conflict involves King Henry II and Thomas Becket. Sir (and Saint) Thomas More from the beginning of the film has his moral base, but Becket finds his spiritual compass as the story unfolds.
The film provides a historical context at the beginning by telling us that Henry is the great grandson of William the Conqueror who was the French Norman that defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His barons and the Catholic clergy helped William oppress the Saxon peasants. But, Anouilh took great liberties with other facts in order to present his take on the historical events. The film opens with Henry (Peter O’Toole, Oscar-nominated) entering Canterbury Cathedral to do penance for the death of Becket (Richard Burton, also nominated for an Oscar), who in this story is a Saxon. We then get the back story, initiated by Henry’s nostalgic reminiscences of happier times with his close friend. It is significant that the King must temporarily relinquish his earthly rule by going to the church and undergoing physical punishment. He shows he is a man of the flesh, not of the spirit, when he says that the Saxon monks are about to whip his “delicate skin.” He says to Thomas’ sepulchral image that the weather almost always has been “cold,” as it was on their last meeting. This reference points to Henry’s preoccupation with the physical world, but also refers to the coldness that he feels Becket showed him despite Henry’s love for his friend.
The story then flashes back to what Henry considered warmer times. He and Becket would go out “wenching,” that is, satisfying their sexual appetites with women, and drinking. The emphasis here is on earthly delights. We get the sense that despite Henry’s proclaimed love for Becket, there is also envy of the man who Henry admits that even in matters of debauchery, Becket was “even better at that than I was.” When the two return to the castle following their carnal exploits, Henry complains of being cold after washing, again self-involved with is physical comfort. Becket is the one who uses a towel to dry him off and restore his warmth. But, Henry says to Becket that the Saxon might actually enjoy the cold, referring to Becket’s emotional state. Although the two have had heterosexual conquests, they pursue them together, and there is a definite homosexual subtext in the film in how Henry feels toward Becket, as this and other scenes show.

We learn from their conversations that Becket is Henry’s learned advisor. As the King says to the clergy and barons, “He’s read books, you know. He’ll checkmate the lot of you!” Henry says to his companion that he has been told not to trust Becket because he is a Saxon, and wonders why his barons hate it that Henry made Becket a nobleman. Becket responds by saying, “One hates what one wrongs.” We see here that Becket is not deluding himself. He does not view the Normans as benevolent invaders, and knows that they are exploitative rulers. How can there be equality when some of the people are not treated equally? But, Becket is a pragmatic collaborator, and Henry asks how does he reconcile collaboration with honor. Becket compartmentalizes, and says he doesn’t try to combine the two. He basically avoids the question about his honor, saying it is a private thing, and he collaborates “to live.”

They go to a meeting with the clergy, and it is here where the movie presents us with the overview of the main conflict. Henry needs money to fight his war with France, and wants to “executive order” away the past practice of excluding the Church from paying taxes. The Archbishop, (Felix Aylmer), says that the Church can’t service the soul and the military, too. But, Henry rightly points out that in the past the priests had no problem taking up arms when conquering the Saxons. He also wants priests who commit civil crimes to be tried in the realm’s courts, not in ecclesiastical ones. Henry emphasizes that there can only be one law in the land, and that is the King’s law. One can argue from our perspective that Henry’s point is correct, but it is also true that the King wants his singular power for domination to persevere.

At this meeting, Henry, always the politician looking for leverage, appoints what he considers his man, Becket, as Chancellor of England, the keeper of the Great Seal of the Realm, symbolized by the ring bearing the images of lions which Henry gives to Becket. The position entails being the King’s advisor, and among other duties, involves judicial and legal responsibilities. Henry says that Becket was always advising him, and now it will be official, and says to those present that Becket is “always thinking.” It may seem that Henry is rewarding Becket, but the King really wants him to owe Henry for the appointment; thus, the relationship in many ways is still one of conqueror and conquered. The Archbishop reminds Becket that he is a member of the Church, an archdeacon, and that his allegiance to the Church is slipping away. It is significant that the worldly Becket and Henry have forgotten Becket’s ties to the spiritual establishment. However, it is a foreshadowing of Becket’s eventual commitment to God. Becket then states where his current loyalties lie, when he says, “England is my mother now.” Toward the end of this meeting, Henry says his guards are approaching, as if to intimidate the clergy, but says they are only bringing his “snack.” He was hungry, and then says that he will pray after he has eaten. Once again, we see that Henry represents the desire for carnal satisfaction, which takes precedence over religious needs.
They go hunting after the meeting, and Henry and Becket wander away from the rest of the hunters. Henry, of course, complains of being cold. They go into the hut of a peasant. There is a young girl and her father, who are so fearful, they don’t speak. Henry’s disdain for them, referring to each as “it,” calling the man, “dog,” and referring to them as mutes, seems to bring out some of Becket’s decency toward his people. He offers to get water for Henry, in lieu of the peasant fetching it. The young girl’s brother attacks Becket outside in an effort to protect his sister. Becket allows him to escape, and says to Henry the wound he received in the confrontation was due to a horse bite. Becket can see that Henry wants the very young woman to satisfy his lust. Henry tries to rationalize his wanting the girl by saying he is doing her a favor by removing her from her poverty. Of course, he leaves out the part that he is selfishly exploiting her for his own purposes. Becket says for sustaining a wound in the act of getting his sovereign’s drink, his reward should be the peasant girl. Henry is bothered by this request, but concedes, as long as Becket realizes he owes Henry a favor, to which his friend agrees. Becket then tells the father that no one will come for his daughter. Thus, we see this compassionate latent part of Becket which is in conflict with his selfish “collaboration” with his conquerors.

Back at the castle, the debauchery and gluttony of Henry’s Norman noblemen are on display in a wine-soaked feast. Becket’s introduction of forks to inject civilized behavior backfires, as Henry predicted, when one of the barons uses it to stab another. Becket, although being Henry’s advisor, does not participate in this drunken behavior, standing aloof from the proceedings, showing him, after his helping the peasants, to not be at home in either the peasant or Norman worlds. He visits the woman who loves him, Gwendolen (Sian Phillips). Becket tells her that he is not able to accept the idea of being loved. Perhaps it is because of his guilt for betraying his people, and not having any honor or dignity involving right versus wrong behavior. A drunken Henry violates their space together. He begins to touch Gwendolen, telling her that he may appear as a brute, but that he is soft as a swan underneath, and then crudely belches, negating his statement. He tells Becket that he needs Gwendolen to smooth out his still rough edges, and asks Becket to repay his debt for the peasant girl by giving up his woman. In this sham of civility, he basically treats Gwendolen as he does all Saxons, as property that he owns. His asking for her is a sort of test. He says if Becket loves him, he’ll give up something he truly cares for. One can also argue that Henry wants to eliminate the woman that stands in the way of Henry’s love for Becket. But, Henry wonders if Becket really cares for anything, including him. Becket asks for a moment with Gwendolen, and Henry agrees because he is not a “savage.” Of course, despite his attempts to pretend otherwise, his lust for power shows his savagery.

In that moment together, Gwendolen asks Becket if when Henry is done with her, will he accept her if she returns to him. Becket’s cold nature, the one Henry accuses him of, shows itself as he says he will not take her back. He does understand himself, though, as he says where in most people there is honor, in him there is a void. This admission so devastates Gwendolen, that when Henry goes to her, he finds that she has stabbed herself to death, rather than accept him. Henry’s shallowness and selfishness is obvious as he cares nothing about Gwendolen, but runs to Becket for comfort after the suicide upsets him. With Becket, he acts like a child asking a parent to tell him that everything will be alright. He can’t stand the sight of blood, which brings into question his ability to lead his country in battle. He says he is lonely, and wants to sleep in Becket’s bed, like a little boy wanting parental protection, or perhaps, given Henry’s underlying homosexuality, wanting to replace Gwendolen in Becket’s bed. But, because what has happened to Gwendolen, Henry wonders out loud if Becket will harbor anger toward his king. They obviously have a love-hate relationship.

Becket says that he must improvise his honor day-to-day, which of course is a contradiction, since honor is a steadfast ethical standard. He says that as long as he wears the ring of the Chancellor, he will be Henry’s faithful servant. But, after Henry dozes off, Becket wonders what would happen if he really met his honor, and asks, “Where is Becket’s honor?” At this point, he is at least thinking about his morality, and is open to its possibilities, and possibly contemplating seeking it.

Becket continues to vacillate between being compassionate and acting in a Machiavellian way when he accompanies Henry to France to wage war. He tells Henry, “One must never drive one’s enemy to despair; it makes him strong. Gentleness is better politics. It saps virility. A good occupational force must never crush. It must corrupt.” In Henry’s tent, he has a naked woman under the sheets, as he is in his usual plundering mode. However, Henry tellingly kicks the girl out of his bed, to make room, as it were, for Becket, his true love, to discuss strategies. But Henry is a keen observer, and he says that instead of admiring morality, Becket appreciates “aesthetics.” That is, he cares more about the way things are done, not the purposes behind the actions. Henry insightfully comments that Becket would be just as formidable an enemy as an asset, which is a definite foreshadowing of their battle to come. But despite how cold Becket comes off in these scenes, he also prevents a Saxon monk by the name of Brother John (David Weston) from being punished after he attacks Becket, and sends him back to his abbot, thus repeating the action with the peasant girl’s brother. There are these hints that he is capable of showing mercy.
Henry receives word that his nemesis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has died. Becket shows his softer side as he remembers that the man was the first Norman to show him kindness. But, Henry, always playing secular politics even at the moment of the death of a spiritual leader, has the inspired idea of naming Becket as the replacement. He says that because Becket is an archdeacon, he can be ordained a priest, and then become the archbishop. Much foreshadowing ensues. Becket warns Henry, “Don’t do this.” He admits that it “frightens” him. He realizes that living a pious life may make him prone to devotion, which will provide that honor which will fill that void inside of him, but which will put him in opposition to the King, who has been his benefactor. Henry feels that he has the upper hand here, and he won’t pass up the chance to use it. He tells Becket that “the die is cast. Make the most of it.” How ironic these words are, as he sets in motion exactly what Henry speculated on about what a formidable opponent Becket can be, since the future archbishop does make “the most” of his situation.
We next see Becket giving away his possessions. His clerical enemy, Folliot (Donald Wolfit), the Bishop of London, says it is good publicity. But Becket actually enjoys the process. He says it’s like being on a “holiday.” He addresses the crucifix hanging on the wall and says to Christ, “It all seems far too easy.” He never felt any affection for things, or people, for that matter. But, now he is on the path that feels right for him, an otherworldly one, that he feels destined to follow. The film then depicts the outwardly grand and elaborate ceremony, signifying a rich religious tradition, which elevates Becket into the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Its solemnity also raises Becket’s inner being to the lofty meaningful purpose he has been avoiding his whole life. The religious vestments are meant for a holy person, and Becket is ready to play that part. In this case, the clothes definitely make the man.
Becket brings the monk, Brother John, who had attacked him, to Canterbury to be his assistant. John feels Becket has betrayed the Saxon people and now is doing the same to God. Becket tells John that maybe the monk can teach him “humility,” which the secular Becket never could master. John eavesdrops on Becket’s prayer to God, in which he says that he wants to know what it is to love, to adore, which he was not capable of on the human level. John realizes that the Archbishop is sincere, and that he is now ready to hear the voice of one who can help him remember his heritage. John says to Becket, as he embraces the Archbishop, “I didn’t know,” referring to the man’s actual devotion. Becket responds by saying, “Neither did I.” Becket surprises himself that his desire to be devoted to God is real.
In a scene with his wife, children, and mother, Henry shows his lack of caring for the traditional heterosexual family. He sees his next in line son to be a schemer, just waiting for his father’s demise so he can take the throne. He says to his wife, Queen Elanor of Aquitaine (Pamela Brown), “Your body, madam, was a desert that duty forced me to wander in alone.” Being “alone” frightens Henry, and is why he goes to Becket after Gwendolen’s death. The Queen hates Becket for taking Henry away from her to visit whores, but Henry says it was just the opposite. So, it is Henry who is the carnal corrupter, showing how Becket was never the one who sought fleshly pleasures, but just played along to please Henry. Henry’s lust for women is transient, but his love for Becket is enduring. As Henry waits for Becket to visit him, after the latter becomes Archbishop, like someone hoping to see his lover, the King’s mother (Martita Hunt) says, “You have an obsession with him that is unhealthy and unnatural.” She sees Henry’s homosexual leanings, and of course espouses the negative viewpoint of her time.
Becket sends Brother John to deliver a message to Henry about the apprehension of a priest, who “debauched” a girl, by Lord Gilbert, who subsequently killed the cleric while escaping. Becket wants Gilbert tried for murder, having killed the priest without a trial, and wants adherence to the trying of priests in ecclesiastical courts. Henry, outraged that Becket did not come to him, now goes to Canterbury. Of course, the first thing he does is complain about how he is “frozen stiff” from the ride, which again emphasizes his earthly needs, and symbolizes, again, the coldness he feels coming from the Becket, who he thought was his man. Becket says he must protect his “sheep,” since he now sees himself as God’s appointed shepherd on earth. Henry says to him that he was the one who appointed him to his post, and owes allegiance to the King. He says that when Becket attacks a nobleman, he attacks the King, and then he is attacking England. Becket says to Henry, “you have introduced me to deeper obligations,” those that are more profound than the ones governing the political world. (Visual details are meaningful, as we see Becket pulling the priestly sash he wears out of Henry’s presumptuous hands, as if it has been sullied by his secular touch). Becket says that he now has a higher honor to defend – the honor of God. Becket gives back the Chancellor’s ring, because it represents a conflict with his office as the Archbishop. Henry’s pain is palpable as he tells Becket, “I would have given away my life laughingly for you. Only I loved you and you didn’t love me.” So, the battle lines are drawn, those between church and state, conqueror and conquered, and friend and loving friend.

Henry, vowing that he will now learn to be alone, seeks out his former foe, Bishop Folliot, to bring down Becket. Henry tells the priest that he goes to him not to confess a sin, but something worse, a “mistake,” again showing Henry’s priority is matters of state, not faith, the opposite of his old friend, Becket. He says his friendship died a kind of “heart” failure, which indicates a feeling closer to love than just friendship. As they concoct a scheme to slander Becket by saying he embezzled funds as Chancellor, Henry relapses into anguish for plotting to hurt Becket. Folliot berates him for lack of resolve, saying, “You love him, don’t you? You still love him!” After Folliot spews insults about Becket, Henry tells him he has confided his hate, not his love, and that he will not tolerate verbal attacks against Becket, which shows how torn he is about his current actions.
After excommunicating Lord Gilbert, Becket flees England for the sanctuary of King Louis of France (John Gielgud), and eventually petitions Pope Alexander III (Paolo Stoppa). (Excommunication was a real punishment to the Catholic population, since it meant cutting a person off from spiritual redemption through receiving sacraments, and condemning a person to hell). Henry is afraid that Becket may get the Pope to place England under Papal Interdict, which means the whole area would be cut off from the Church’s sacraments. But instead, Becket asks the Pope to be relieved of his title to prevent a schism within England between the church and the state. The Pope however, wants the Church to prevail, and tells Becket that he will retain his post, but stay in monastic retreat in France.
At the monastery, Becket, while praying to God, feels life is too easy, too happy, in retreat. He says that he became Archbishop to defend his religion, and wants to return to England to continue the fight. (The poet T. S. Eliot, in his work Murder in the Cathedral, addresses the subject of whether Becket’s forcing Henry’s hand was an act of pride, or even suicide. Eliot resolves the problem by saying that when a person’s will coincides with that of God’s, there is a resolution of the dilemma). So, Becket persuades King Louis to have a meeting with Henry to bring about a reconciliation, for which Henry will be in debt to Louis. He tells Louis that Henry will never forgive Becket, though, for having preferred God to Henry. The two face each other on a beach, where Henry again complains of the cold. Becket had told Henry to protect himself against the cold by getting used to it, splashing himself with water before venturing out into chilly weather. Here it seems to symbolize not only their opposing sensibilities, but also the difference between Henry’s noble lineage and Becket’s peasant background. The King complains about his family, telling Becket never to marry (being a priest, Becket can’t), but it again shows Henry’s wish to keep Becket, even now, to himself. Becket agrees to several compromises so he can go back to England, but will not lift Lord Gilbert’s excommunication, and still insists on the Church’s right to hold ecclesiastical trials. Becket knows he will always be a thorn in Henry’s side, and accurately tells the King that he will never see him again, which horrifies Henry.
We find Henry with his barons, drinking, quenching their physical thirst. One of his noble subjects tells the King that Becket returned as a hero to the Saxons as they cheered him when he visited various villages. This news vexes Henry, but he also significantly grabs his heart, showing the pain of his lost love, and admits that so long as Becket lives, “I tremble, I shake.” He then asks, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The barons take this statement as an order to kill Becket. The Archbishop acknowledges to Brother John that the time of his death is close. He says, “It is here now, the supreme folly, this is its hour.” He even wonders if God is “laughing” at him. He sees himself as playing a part in an absurdist play written by God to make him the victim despite his dutiful service. But, he accepts his role as an archetypal sacrifice, as he says to the Deity, “I’m ready: adorned for Your festivities.” The barons murder him in the cathedral, when vespers are to occur, highlighting the contrast between the holy and the profane.

The movie ends where it began, with Henry in Canterbury Cathedral, now being severely whipped by Saxon monks as he accepts responsibility, if not guilt, for Becket’s death. (He warns his barons that they will basically have to make a sacrifice, too, for having brought about Becket’s demise). For Henry, it is all about politics, to appease the Saxon population, and the Church, but also to retain the Crown’s dominion. However, his submission for punishment, his stripping off of his kingly robes, and being humbled and humiliated, symbolizes a concession to the spiritual needs of the people, who live in an earthly kingdom. This action is at least a temporary reconciliation signified by the final shot, a panoramic, inclusive view of the Church, The King, and their subjects.

The next film is Heaven Can Wait.

1 comment:

  1. I love this film and enjoyed reading your review very much. One bit though seems odd: "In a scene with his wife, children, and mother, Henry shows his lack of caring for the traditional heterosexual family........As Henry waits for Becket to visit someone hoping to see his lover, the King’s mother says, 'You have an obsession with him that is unhealthy and unnatural.' She sees Henry’s homosexual leanings, and of course espouses the negative viewpoint of her time".

    Good grief, where did you get your "take" on these scenes from? I've seen this film numerous times. Henry and Thomas were friends, and yes, male friends can love each other, and yes, Henry is depicted as being obsessed with that friendship, but never did I get a suggestion from the film of "homosexual leanings", and I say this: as a gay man. It isn't there. Did Becket protect Brother John because he fancied him? Is the pointed bishop's miter a phallic symbol? See how weird this can get?


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