It’s a classic. It’s beloved, if for decades only on VHS. It’s got big stars, terrific performances, witty dialogue, opulent spectacle.
It was a smash hit in its day, and got more than a dozen Oscar nominations — including best picture, director and leading actor nominations for both of its stars — as well as one award for adapted screenplay.
So why has it taken so long for Becket, starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, to get its due?
Few films of comparable stature have remained unavailable on DVD for so long. Where many classics celebrate anniversaries with DVD special editions or even theatrical revivals, Becket’s 40th anniversary came and went in 2004 without fanfare.
At last, though, the film is getting its due. Following its Jan. 26 premiere at New York’s Film Forum theater, a newly restored and remastered print of Becket will be touring the country playing brief engagements at selected theaters from Seattle to San Diego, from Tallahassee to West Newton, Maine. (See ‘Where and When’ at right for locations and starting dates.)
The restoration itself was carried out in 2003 by separate video and audio restoration teams working in Burbank, Calif., under the direction of Academy Film Archive Director Mike Pogorzelski, with financial support from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.
It was a difficult and painstaking process. The original 35-mm negative was lost, and existing film elements were in advanced states of decay. In particular, the original soundtracks were crumbling even as a restoration team labored to preserve and restore the audio information.
Restoring the film, though, was only one of the challenges Becket faced. According to Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood-Elsewhere.com, there were also ongoing rights disputes with the family of French playwright Jean Anouilh, upon whose stage play the film is based. Wells also indicates that the MPI Media Group, which owns video rights to the film, may be partly responsible for delays; announced plans for a 2005 DVD never materialized and 2006 came and went.
Even now, with the rights issues with the Anouilh family resolved and MPI organizing limited screenings, no DVD release date has been announced. Still, it’s reasonable to expect that it will come before the end of the year.
The story itself, of course, is well known to Catholic viewers. In the 12th century, King Henry II of England elevated his chancellor and bosom companion Thomas Becket to the archbishopric of Canterbury — over the strenuous objections of Becket himself. He foresaw that, as primate of England, he would be obliged to oppose Henry’s hard line toward the Church in England.
The ensuing battle of wills ultimately led to Becket’s martyrdom at the hands of four knights in Henry’s service. (These events strikingly anticipate the later conflict of another English king named Henry who had another chancellor named Thomas who became a martyr and a saint: Henry VIII and Thomas More, whose story is told in the brilliant play and movie A Man for All Seasons.)
It’s worth noting that Becket takes liberties with history. The real Thomas Becket was a Norman, but the film makes him a Saxon in order to generate cultural and ethnic tension with Henry, the Norman monarch. Also, while Becket did undergo a dramatic spiritual transformation at his episcopal ordination — for one thing, he abandoned the luxury and ostentatious display that had previously characterized his life under Henry and proceeded to give his worldly goods to the poor — the historical Becket was never the libertine the fictionalized Henry fondly recalls drinking and womanizing with.
But Becket is nonetheless a masterpiece: reverent, well-made, literally spectacular. As Henry II, O’Toole roars magnificently both in laughter and in rage; watching the film again, I was newly struck by the subtlety, as well as the obvious force, of his performance.
Burton’s performance, too, though far less showy than O’Toole’s, is responsible for the film’s weight and power. As zesty and flamboyant as O’Toole is, on its own his performance would quickly pall.
Of course, the restored film makes my old VHS copy look and sound dingy and muffled. The DVD, whenever it comes, it will be a must-buy.
But Becket fans who live in areas where the film will be screened in the next couple of months shouldn’t miss this opportunity to see this grand spectacle on the big screen.
Some films benefit more than others from the theatrical experience. Becket is definitely one to see in theaters.
Content advisory: Offscreen sexual immorality and some demeaning treatment of female characters; coarse language; restrained violence, including a murder/martyrdom. Okay for most teens.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and
chief critic of DecentFilms.com.