Becket (1964) *****

Two stars in impeccable form, an intriguing tale of betrayal and redemption, and a sharp reminder that Britain was once a conquered nation. Given the original play was written by a Frenchman, Jean Anouilh, I wondered how much of the experience of France being occupied by Germany during World War Two informed the work.

Becket (Richard Burton) is dabbed a collaborator for having anything to do with King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), not just in his gainful employ and rising to positions of enormous power, but in accepting his friendship being viewed as a traitor to his countryman. England then, 100 years after the invasion of William the Conqueror, was divided into Normans, who ruled, and Saxons, the indigenous population, who obeyed. The only source of rebellion was through the Catholic Church which could claim, in its prime allegiance to God, to place religion above ruler.

Initially, it’s the story of two unprincipled men, who drink and lust to their heart’s content, until Henry, misreading his friend’s personality, appoints him Archbishop of Canterbury, the most important religious leader in the country, assuming that Becket would continue in his hypocritical ways and bring the clergy to heel. Unfortunately, in taking on the position, Becket takes to heart everything it stands for and instead of extending his power Henry finds it challenged.

It’s classic narrative, fast friends turned bitter enemies, the American Civil War in a nutshell. The more Becket sticks to his guns, the more his life is imperilled. Since the story is based on historical actuality, anyone who saw it at the time would be aware of the famous outcome, but the teaching of history and English history at that, either having fallen in abeyance or being given the revisionist treatment, viewers coming at afresh will be surprised at the political and moral twists and turns.

Nor is it of the “thee” and “thou” school of historical drama. The language is modernised, it is filled with humor, and spiced through with irony. Caught in a downpour during a hunt and sheltering, wet and bedraggled, in a peasant hut in a wood, Becket explains to the king that anyone who dared light him a fire would be hanged for taking precious wood out of the forest, a law laid down by Henry to make more money from his forests.

Likeable though Henry is, full of energy and fun, he is also sly and mean. On the basis of what’s mine is yours, he passes on a peasant lass to Becket, but in demanding the favour returned insists that Becket allow him to have sex with his fiancee, who promptly commits suicide rather than submit.

Henry wheedles as much as he demands, needing to keep his nobles in line if they are to fund his lifestyle and wars. There is always the tricky business of making alliances with untrustworthy rivals. This almost a template for Game of Thrones, the business of ruling as much about the velvet glove as the iron fist, negotiation and concession as important as outright demonstrations of strength.

Even when in an inferior position, there is always diplomatic recourse. The French king (John Gielgud), deliberately keeping waiting a British contingent, explains that the delay will allow them time to be measured for some fashionable French clothing. Now that is a barb served in silk.

It’s possibly as big a surprise to Becket, as indulgent in drinking and whoring as the king, to discover that he has principles. The clergy was known for abusing its power and, despite taking a vow of poverty, living high on the hog. So he stuns both his fellow priests and bishops as much as the king when he gives away all his possessions to fulfil that basic vow. There’s almost an element of naivety. Having played the game so far, suddenly he refuses, to the consternation of everyone in power.

For a time it becomes a battle of wills and that eternal question of who is more important, the invisible God or the human king, and Becket to some extent becomes a pawn.

And it’s brilliantly acted. In his first role since coming to global attention with Lawrence of Arabia (1964) Peter O’Toole creates a more down-to-earth conniving ruthless character. Richard Burton (Cleopatra, 1963), trying to prove he can attract an audience without the help of Elizabeth Taylor, matches him every step of the way. The fiery oratory is replaced by introspection.

Director Peter Glenville (The Comedians, 1967) resists the temptation to open up the stage play, which he also helmed on Broadway (where it won the Tony for Best Play), and for a historical picture set in warring times it’s surprisingly lacking in battles. But it’s easily one of the best historical pictures ever made and it’s a travesty that the Oscar for Best Actor went to neither O’Toole nor Burton, both nominated who split the vote, but to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady. John Gielgud (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) was a whimsical quirky delight, so different to his normal screen persona.

Out of 12 Oscar nominations, it won only for screenplay, by Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965).

Does what historical movies so rarely accomplish: thoughtful, stylish, brilliantly structured with superb acting and direction.

Barabbas (1961) ****

Brutally ironic ending adds a final twist to this religious epic that sheds a murky rather than heavenly light on the early days of Christianity. Barabbas (Anthony Quinn), in case you are unaware, is the criminal who, in a public vote, is spared crucifixion instead of Jesus Christ. Intent on returning to his lusty life, instead he finds himself drawn to the teachings of the Son of God despite his feverish attempts to deny it. Death might have been preferable to two decades spent imprisoned in the sulphur mines followed by a stint as gladiator only, finally refusing to deny his conversion, he ends up on a cross.

The fate of Barabbas in the Bible is undetermined, only meriting a few lines, but in the imagination of Swedish novelist Par Laverkvist he lived quite an extraordinary life, a criminal vagabond coming to believe in what he originally despised.  The religious element is almost an excuse to investigate life at the edge of a pauper’s existence, a world in which faith is possibly the only way to get through the day. It’s an episodic tale with Barabbas as a Job-like peasant on whom constant indignity and humiliation is heaped.

A witness at times to the most exalted elements of Christianity – the eclipse surrounding the crucifixion, the stone rolled away from the tomb – he also sees lover Rachel (Silvana Mangano), a Christian convert, stoned to death. It’s a miracle he survives imprisonment in the mines and that when, thanks to an earthquake, he escapes it’s almost bitter irony that he ends up in gladiator school, facing the demonically sadistic Torvald (Jack Palance). Even when pardoned, he is again arrested for, believing the end of the world is nigh as described in the Christian teachings, helping burn Rome to the ground. Arrest this time sends him back to where he started, heading for crucifixion, though this time willingly.

Anthony Quinn (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) is excellent as the dumb, mostly mystified peasant, only occasionally rising to the occasion, mostly defeated, or captured, and failing to defend those he should protect. Not entirely cowardly, witness his battle in the arena, but self-serving, and in a sense cursed by events outside his control.

Others are only briefly in the spotlight, Silvana Mangano (Five Branded Women, 1960) good as the converted Christian accepting her fate, ditto Vittorio Gassman (Ghosts of Rome, 1961) as an enemy prisoner in the mines, and Jack Palance (Once a Thief, 1965) over-the-top as the kingpin gladiator. In cameo roles – not exactly the promised all-star cast – you can find Ernest Borgnine (Chuka, 1967), Arthur Kennedy (Claudelle Inglish, 1961), Katy Jurado (A Covenant with Death, 1967), Valentina Cortese (The Visit, 1964) and Harry Andrews  (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968).

Director Richard Fleischer (The Big Gamble, 1961) does a brilliant job of keeping reverence at bay, turning the potential awe of the eclipse into a moment of personal terror, ensuring that current persecution rather than potential eternal life remains foremost, focusing on the human not the ethereal. He presents Barabbas as constantly mystified at his escape, guilt-ridden that he has done nothing with his life, thwarted in virtually every attempt at redemption.

The big scenes are well-handled, the sulphur mines a pit of Hell, the arena far more realistic than Spartacus (1960), the burning of Rome that initially represents freedom turning into a trap. Filmed in Technirama 70mm, Fleischer makes the most of the widescreen and the historical detail.

In some respects this makes more sense if viewed alongside the director’s crime triptych of Compulsion (1959), The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1970) which concentrate on outsiders coming to national attention through illicit activity.

Far from the usual stodgy religious offerings of the period, more in keeping with a Pasolini-like vision, with a keener eye on history than creed, it’s been rather overlooked and deserves reappraisal.

Christopher Fry (The Bible…in the Beginning, 1966) was credited with the screenplay from the book by the Nobel prize-winning novelist Par Laverkvist.

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