Becket, one of Hal Wallis’s super-productions from the ’60s, is an odd film. That description itself might seem a little strange because at first blush, Becket looks like almost the definition of straightforward, “quality” filmmaking, c. mid-1960s, with major stars, a prestigious play as the source, cheering extras, rich costumes, big sets and a symphonic score you can’t ignore. You need only scratch the surface, however, for the strangeness to become apparent.
Actually, start with the surface. Set in the reign of Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole), that is, the mid-12th century, the costumes and much of the décor are blatantly anachronistic, products of the wealthier, more developed 14th century. Admittedly, that may only be an issue for specialists. Audiences might well think “Medieval is Medieval,” and dismiss a century or two’s inaccuracy with a shrug. Still, it is difficult to reconcile the brutish behavior we witness (the dialog tells us, for example, that people didn’t even know how to use forks) with trappings too refined to contain them.
The film’s theatrical origins also create some problems. There doesn’t seem to have been any serious effort to alter theatrical conventions that do not work on screen. For example, in one scene, Becket (Richard Burton) argues with the Bishop of London (Donald Wolfit), who leaves after their discussion concludes. Immediately afterward, a monk arrives through the same door exited by the Bishop, with a message for him. The monk speaks with Becket instead, because he “missed” the Bishop. We accept this kind of contrivance on the stage as necessary artifice. On screen, we wonder how they could have “missed” each other, since they should have passed in the hall.
Then there is the openly homoerotic aspect of the relationship between Henry and Becket. Henry’s love is so extreme he nearly has a heart attack in contorted rejection, so it is difficult to claim the theme is accidental or unconscious. While there is a laboriously unconvincing stress on Becket and Henry’s “wenching,” (always together, mind) there are nonetheless plenty of coy hints that their friendship moves beyond Platonic love: Becket drying Henry from behind after a bath and Henry saying “Nobody does it like you do,” or Henry sprawling out on Becket’s bed to spend the night after the latter’s lover Gwendolyn (Sîan Philips) commits suicide. The point is not whether Henry and Becket were lovers, however, but the consequences of playing their relationship both ways.
That tension is merely the most obvious of several unresolved contradictions that make this “straight” epic move so crookedly. The tragic histrionics proceed in fits and starts to end up a very personal story about emotional frustration. Becket’s crisis of conscience, presumably the point of the play, gets lost in a fog of private confusion, while Henry never comes to terms with the implications of his feelings. The results are more opaque than epic, and thus, for all the deluxe treatment, a little “odd.”