Earlier today, I watched the second nominee from 1964's Best Picture competition...
(based on the play by Jean Anouilh)
Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit
1 win, for Best Adapted Screenplay
The politics of religion are at the forefront of this 12th century tale of two men with a very complicated friendship. Thomas Becket (Burton) is the right hand man of King Henry II (O'Toole). Despite differing backgrounds, they are seemingly the best of friends, enjoying evenings of debauchery. But where the King is a childishly tyrannical ruler, Becket is considerate and contemplative. After the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who stubbornly opposed the King on several matters, Henry appoints Becket to the holy post, hoping it will lead to easier control of the Church. Unfortunately for Henry, Becket takes his position seriously, declaring loyalty to God over his monarch, thus incensing Henry. So begins a bitter struggle between two clever and obstinate adversaries.
With all its political maneuvering, Becket unfolds like a chess game. Each move is deliberate and strategic. Interestingly, only minutes after I perceived this chess metaphor, it became seriously blatant as two characters indeed play a game of chess while referencing a knight toppling a bishop. The metaphor is also featured in later dialogue, but I swear I put it all together myself first. I could so be a writer.
The picture does an excellent job of immersing its audience in all things medieval, a large testament to its production design. The script contains various philosophical, political and religious arguments, making the film literally thought-provoking. Despite these serious themes, there is much wit in the dialogue, including a persuasive exchange on the redundancy of forks.
But it is the powerhouse performances of the film's two leads that truly hold one's interest - the kind of exhilarating display unique to classically trained British actors. And Burton and O'Toole (pictured) complement each other beautifully. Burton's stoic and pensive Becket is the perfect companion to O'Toole's maniacally insecure Henry. They both received Best Actor nominations for their work on this film, yet with 15 career nominations between them, they are both without a trophy. Burton may have passed on, but the 77-year-old O'Toole is fond of declaring that he still has a chance. Other cast members worth noting are John Gielgud who received the film's third acting nomination for his relatively short turn as the French King Louis VII, and, although he wasn't nominated, Donald Wolfit delivers another accomplished portrayal as the Bishop of London.