Made in Shepperton Studios in the UK, this is a very fine, perhaps great, motion picture. It is costume drama but not routine, invigorated by story substance, personality clash, bright dialog and religious interest. Not least among its virtues is the pace of the narrative in the astute handing of Peter Glenville, with his advantage of having also mounted the stage play from which the film is derived.
The screenplay owes much to Jean Anouilh’s orginal stage script. The modern psychology of Anouilh lends fascination to these 12th century shenanigans by investing them with special motivational insights rare in costume drama. The basic story is, of course, historic, the murder on December 29, 1170, in the cathedral of Canterbury of its archbishop, Becket, by barons from the entourage of Henry II, greatgrandson of William the Conquerer. For fictional purposes, Becket and the King had been old roustabouts together, much as, later in English history, Henry V and Falstaff were.
In the title role, Richard Burton gives a generally convincing and resourceful performance. The transition from the cold, calculating Saxon courtier of a Norman king into a duty-obsessed sincere churchman is not easily managed. Burton does manage.
As Henry II, Peter O’Toole emerges as the fatter role, and the more colorful. The king is an unhappy monarch who has known little affection in life. His only satisfying companionship has been provided by the Saxon Becket. Hating-loving, miserably lonely when deserted by his friend, O’Toole makes of the king a tormented, many-sided baffled, believable human being.
1964: Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole), Supp. Actor (John Gielgud), Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design, Color Art Direction, Editing, Original Music Score, Sound