This 1964 film deals with the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, after his old drinking buddy, King Henry II, famously asked, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest!?" It’s been a matter of great debate whether Henry actually meant to order the murder of his old friend and, to me at least, this film almost makes the case that Henry’s words were just the impulsive, possibly drunken words of a rather immature man thrust, by heredity, into a position of power he was not yet ready for.
One might think that the political murder of a priest in a pre-Renaissance England would make for a rather dry, humorless film. Luckily, Becket proves them wrong. Though director Peter Glenville was not a flashy stylist and occasionally does allow the film to become a bit stagey, he was also a wonderful director of actors and manages to get wonderful lead performances from a young Peter O’Toole (as Henry) and even from the normally diffident Richard Burton (as Becket). When the film begins, it feels very much like a comedy. When we first meet Becket and Henry, they are two young, spoiled friends who spend most of their time drinking and chasing wenches. Though, as expected, O’Toole is hilarious as the fun-loving monarch, even Burton manages a few slyly sardonic line readings. Years later, in an interview with David Letterman, O’Toole would admit that both the lead actors were drunk during the majority of the shooting and basically just having a grand old time of it. Their sense of fun in these early scenes is easily translatable to the audience and its hard not to like these two immoral rogues and, perhaps, to even secretly want to find a time machine and go hang out with them. O’Toole and Burton were friends in real life and the mutual affection the two shared is especially obvious and endearing and serves to make the film’s later events all the more tragic.
The film takes a serious turn when the previous Archbishop dies and Henry, seeing a way to make things easier for him, appoints his old friend Becket to the position. However, once installed, Becket discovers his soul. He becomes a rare example of a man who power does not corrupt but instead serves to purify. As a leader, Becket discovers his lost integrity and tragically, this leads to his own martyrdom and later canonization. Fittingly, this man redeemed by the church (and who would guess that this would be the premise of such a hilarious, entertaining, and downright fun film?) becomes patron saint of the clergy.
That said, this isn’t really a film about religion as much as its about friendship and the price one pays for taking a stand. This is one of the best historical films I have ever seen and should be seen by anyone interested in either a good story or just some of the best acting ever put on screen. There’s something beautiful about a film that surprises you by defying your expectations and Becket is a great example of one of those films.