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Film / Becket

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Becket is a 1964 British film adaptation of the French play Becket or the Honour of God by Jean Anouilh, directed by Peter Glanville and starring Peter O'Toole as Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 12th-century England, King Henry II is at odds with the church because he spends most of his time hunting, drinking, and womanizing with his Saxon friend Thomas Becket, who also advises him on matters of state. Following the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry appoints Becket as his replacement, despite the protests of most of the clergy and Becket himself, who claims that he cannot serve both God and the king. Becket takes his new position seriously and finds himself in opposition to Henry's interference in the church. Henry becomes furious because he mistakenly believed that installing his best friend as archbishop would give him control of the church. He banishes Becket from England and now the two friends become mortal enemies.

Four years later O'Toole would play Henry II again as an older man in the film adaption of the play The Lion in Winter with Katharine Hepburn as his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Contains examples of:

  • Artistic License – History:
    • The most obvious being that Becket was actually a Norman (and not only that, his parents had only recently emigrated from France and Becket himself was educated in Paris) and not a Saxon. Jean Anouilh admitted that he invented this for Rule of Drama. Further, some recent historians suggest that Becket and Henry were never as close of friends as the play and film make out.
    • When Henry II went to perform his penance in the wake of Becket's murder he stopped outside Canterbury, took off his boots, and walked barefoot three miles to the Cathedral rather than riding up to the Cathedral as depicted in the film.
    • The real Thomas Beckett was consecrated as Bishop by Henry of Blois, who was the Bishop of Winchester rather than Bishop of London Gilbert Foliot as depicted in the film.
    • Becket's death happened after Henry the Young King's coronation rather than shortly after Becket's return from exile as the film suggests. The younger Henry's coronation was performed by the Archbishop of York instead of by Becket, who as Archbishop of Canterbury held the right to crown the monarch. Learning of this Becket excommunicated the clergy involved in the coronation, and in response Henry had his infamous frustrated outburst that prompted the barons to kill Becket.
    • The relationship between the real life Henry and Empress Matilda was no where near as acrimonious as the film makes out. Historical evidence indicates that Henry adored Matilda and relied on her heavily for guidance until her death.
    • Empress Matilda died three years before Becket was allowed to return to England from exile.
    • In the film, Henry covers for Becket's assassins and they are let go. In real life, they traveled to Rome to absolve their sins and were sentenced to 14 years of military service in the Holy Land.
  • The Atoner: Becket, once he's made Archbishop, devotes himself completely to God to make up for his sins. Also by the end, Henry for ordering Becket's death.
  • Berserk Button: When his eldest son identifies himself as "Henry III", Henry replies with an angry "Not yet!"
  • Candlelit Ritual: The rite of excommunication is performed with the Archbishop Becket flanked by a full choir, all bearing candles. After declaring Lord Gilbert cast out of the church, Becket snuffs his candle out against the floor, followed by all the monks in attendance doing the same.
  • Category Traitor: Becket is a Saxon who sides with the Norman King Henry.
  • Chess Motifs:
    • King Louis is first seen at a chessboard, proclaiming that his French knight has captured an English bishop. (This is right after Becket, as bishop, goes into exile in France.)
    • Becket himself gets this line, while in prayer:
      It has pleased you to make me archbishop, and to set me like a solitary pawn face to face with the king on the chessboard.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Henry does this a couple times.
    • First, Henry failed to think through what would happen if Becket were to take being Archbishop seriously instead of being the King's puppet.
    • And second, he didn't think through what would happen when he asked why no one would rid him of Beckett.
  • Doesn't Know Their Own Child: Henry can't tell his rambunctious sons apart.note 
  • Driven to Suicide: Lady Gwendolyn
  • Dysfunctional Family: When you see Henry's home life, you don't blame him for wanting to hang out with Becket.
  • The Good Chancellor: Becket to Henry until Henry makes him archbishop.
  • Evil Matriarch: Henry's mother the Empress Matilda.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Until Henry makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: In the film it is at least strongly implied that Henry knowingly ordered Becket's death, and that his penance was a token gesture to get the heat off of his back. The general concensus among both contemporaries and historians is that it was a case of a drunken Henry lashing out in anger and being mistaken for an order, and that Henry was later genuinely remorseful.
  • Historical In-Joke: In what is possibly a historic in-joke for The Bayeux Tapestry, Henry yells in frustration at his wife and mother:
    Henry II: In God's name, how long does it take to make a tapestry?! And it's mediocre beyond belief!
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Henry directly compares his love for Becket to his relationship with his wife, with Becket coming out far ahead, even moaning his name at one point. His mother says he has an "obsession with this man that is unhealthy and unnatural" and that he's behaving like a scorned lover. His wife says she can tolerate the King's mistresses, but will not tolerate his relationship with Becket. Interestingly this seems to have been made up for the movie and has no historical basis.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • Henry grabs the idiot ball on a regular basis.
      • First, he fails to consider what would happen if he forced Becket to make a choice as to where his loyalties lay - either King or the Church.
      • Next, while he might not have intended it, what did Henry think was going to happen when he asked his knights if no one would rid him of Becket? Did he seriously think that the knights would realize that he did not mean it as a direct command from their King to kill Becket?
    • Becket also gets his hands on the idiot ball as well by failing to consider how Henry would react to a challenge to his authority as well as failing to consider that the larger church might not back him up.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Becket thinks the old impoverished Saxon farmer he and Henry find may have been handsome in his youth.
  • It Will Never Catch On; Henry doesn't see the use of these new implements for eating called "forks":note 
    Thomas Becket: Tonight you can do me the honor of christening my forks.
    King Henry II: Forks?
    Becket: Yes, from Florence. New little invention. It's for pronging meat and carrying it to the mouth. It saves you dirtying your fingers.
    Henry II: But then you dirty the fork.
    Becket: Yes, but it's washable.
    Henry II: So are your fingers. I don't see the point.
  • Large Ham: Peter O'Toole at his hammiest.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Becket saves a Saxon girl taken from her family from being ravished by Henry. Henry in return demands he sleep with Becket's mistress. She kills herself before they can do the deed.
  • Race Lift: The historical Thomas Becket was a Norman not a Saxon.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia: Henry II in this film. Averted when O'Toole plays him again in The Lion in Winter.
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: "Will no-one rid me of this meddlesome priest?!"
  • Royal Brat: Henry's eldest son, also named Henry.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: The Saxon girl Henry finds and takes from her family to sleep with.
  • Sinister Minister: Bishop Folliot.
  • The Snark King: Henry, especially around his own family.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Henry has himself flogged by monks after he orders the death of Becket.
  • Turbulent Priest: Becket was the Trope Namer although Henry calls him "meddlesome" in the movie.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Right up to the point where Thomas is installed as Archbishop of Canterbury. The friendship quickly falls apart then.