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.

Behind the Scenes: “The Comedians” (1967)

Richard Burton was at his box office peak. From Cleopatra (1963) through The VIPs (1963), Becket (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967) he had enjoyed massive box office success and notched up  three Oscar nominations. He was being pursued for Camelot (1967) – the part he played on Broadway – and himself pursued the rights to Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. But out of admiration for novelist Graham Greene he accepted, sight unseen, the leading role in The Comedians.

Director Peter Glenville, better known at the time as a stage director, owed his career to the two male principals. Alec Guinness had backed him for his debut The Prisoner (1955) and starred in his latest film, the farce Hotel Paradiso (1966). Burton had been one of his two incendiary stars of Becket (1964), a box office smash, as a consequence of which the director signed a four-picture deal with MGM. All three of his previous films had begun life as plays directed by Glenville.

Before the picture could get off the ground it faced a potential legal minefield from producer George Glass. He owned the rights to a short story The Prisoner, written by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, 1959) and published in the January 1952 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. It had since been turned into a television play directed by john Frankenheimer for the Playhouse 90 series in February 1957. Glass argued the new picture would infringe his copyright.

Although without doubt Taylor was the bigger box office star, the better remunerated  and the more acclaimed, at least by Oscar standards (two wins to his five nominations), in their personal life the roles were reversed. “There seems little doubt,” wrote Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg, “that although he was drawn into what he saw as the mystery and fun of Elizabeth he was the dominating partner. She soothed him. She sought him in bars.” Burton himself said, “We never had any question of who was boss. She always realised I was to run the show.”

Whether that was the reason she took what was no more than a supporting role in The Comedians at half her usual salary (for the first time Burton on $750,000 versus her $500,000 was the financial top dog) is unclear, but she certainly, as was attested on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, did not like to leave him footloose and fancy free on a film set where he could indulge his liking for liquor and pretty women. On her previous film, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) “she resented playing second fiddle” to Marlon Brando, and might have preferred making a picture where she regained a sense of her own importance, but instead she accepted a role that was not up to her usual high standard.

Director Peter Glenville (Becket) had not particularly wanted Taylor for the role, possibly feeling she might over-balance the project. It would be the couple’s seventh movie together, a pairing that was being discussed in the same hushed tones as the legendary Tracy-Hepburn. Alec Guinness was somewhat apprehensive about the film. Calls he had made to the couple’s suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London had gone unanswered and gifts returned. Burton was mortified. It turned out his staff had been too protective of their employer.

Shooting began in January 1967 before the novel was published. Although producers often purchased books while still in galley stage, they generally preferred the book to have acquired a substantial readership before embarking on a costly movie investment. However, Graham Greene could fairly lay claim to being the greatest living English writer and his involvement appeared to add gravitas to the project, although it would be fair to say that none of the translations of his works into movies had enjoyed anything like the success of The Third Man (1949). He had not written for the screen since Our Man in Havana (1960), also starring Guinness.

Unusually for a novelist, he had acquired a reputation for setting his stories in trouble spots. Often, he would take on a journalistic assignment from the likes of the British Sunday Times to investigate conditions in countries undergoing brutal change. His literary reputation often gave him access to the inner sanctum from which an ordinary reporter would have been barred. The author had adored Haiti before the Duvalier takeover and hated that Papa Doc ruled by terror, backed by the dreaded Tonton Macoutes.  The Comedians was a determinedly political novel, the author hoping his expose of an “unique evil” might put pressure on the dictator.

Greene described Haiti as a “a tormented little country” and had feared for his life on his last visit. The author told an Italian journalist that he had clearly got under Duvalier’s skin. “A writer is not so powerless as he usually feels,” he once wrote, “and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood.”  Martha (the Elizabeth Taylor character) was based on a woman the author had known in Martinique who ran a hotel and had a son.

Initially, Glenville had envisaged making the film in Haiti, where the book was set, but, given the author had taken careful aim at country it was a concern that the dictator might take revenge on stars who had the audacity to film in his own backyard. Dahomey, in West Africa, about the size of Cuba, was its replacement.

When accidents plagued the shoot, and since voodoo was a story element, rumors spread that Duvalier had ordered witch doctors to curse the production. “Apparently voodoo spells cannot travel over water,” recollected Guinness, “and have to be operated at hand…(but) on the first day of filming one of the unit stumbled on the beach, possibly from a heart attack, and drowned in a foot of water before anybody could assist him. Several people complained of difficulty in breathing, suffering from acute headaches and deep depression; one or two had to be sent home….there was something a little sinister in the atmosphere.” Guinness, in conversation with the French Consul, was informed the country was still inhabited by cannibals, a threat he took seriously enough to warn actor Paul Ford’s wife not to sit around alone on her porch, but which was later discounted by the local archbishop as the kind of joke a foreigner would too easily fall for

Guinness also saved the director from drowning. Not realizing how treacherous the sea, with an infamous undertow, could be, Glenville had gone for a swim. Reading on the beach nearby, Guinness heard him calling for help and had to drag him to safety. Guinness suffered from a mysterious rash for four days.

Of course, Burton and Taylor were treated like royalty, They were met by President Soglo and given use of the presidential compound. And it was also a humbling experience. Washing was strung along lines in the presidential courtyard, the Queen’s closet was filled with “a perfectly ordinary rack of shoes.” Burton had mixed feelings, commenting in his diary, about the President: “his clothes were ill-made…he obviously likes women and was forever taking E (Taylor) by the arm…We both found the experience oddly moving. Here was this huge, mosaiced palace, only completed three years ago, and outside the immense Salle de Reception, capable of receiving 3,000 people at one time, there was washing on the line.”

But this treatment did not extend everywhere, and for the better. Most people in Dahomey had never heard of the couple so they were able to dine out without harassment. “Glenville noticed that the lack of outside stress helped them relax in front of the camera.”

But the heat was intolerable, temperatures some days reaching 110 degrees, hitting 138 degrees under movie lights. This resulted in no one dallying over takes. The situation was exacerbated by Burton’s drinking. “I hardly find him the same person,” commented Guinness, recalling the times the pair had occasionally spent together in the late 1940s when he was by far the bigger star. “Drink has taken a bit of a toll.” Breakfast for Burton on the first day of shooting was a Bloody Mary. On one occasion Burton was so inebriated he failed to turn up for a presidential dinner in their honor in front of two hundred guests.  He was an ugly drunk and his wife bore the brunt of it. Being top dog financially and in terms of screen credit did not appear to bring him the solace he required.

The Burtons’ extensive entourage recruited an additional member with a specific skill. Photographer Gianni Bozzachi was “considered the number one re-toucher in Italy,” his job solely to ensure that any photographs of Taylor sent to the press were “as beautiful as humanly possible.” He became the couple’s official photographer, often taking candid pictures unobtrusively.

Bozzachi believed Taylor more beautiful in person – her left and right profiles were equally symmetrical, a rare physical gift –  than on camera and was attempting to capture that inner beauty. He said, “without make-up she glows. There’s a sensuality always present.” But he also exuded a sensuality that disturbed Burton. That a tall curly-haired handsome young man was showering attention on his wife made Burton jealous.

Burton and Alec Guinness respected each other’s talent. In one four-minute scene where Guinness took center stage and Burton was simply listening, Guinness commented, “That was the greatest support I’ve had from an actor in my life.”

Burton was not particularly enamored of Dahomey. Although he retained a “certain amount of nostalgia” for the country, he also referred to the “dangerous sea,” the arrogance of the Americans, the “mad palace, the President and his dowdy provincial wife.” But then Burton in his diaries was particularly waspish.  Guinness was even more forthright. “I was glad to leave Dahomey. I couldn’t help feeling it was sinister…ideas of voodoo are never absent from one’s mind.” The final stages of filming were completed in Nice.

In the wake of the violence in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and, more especially, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which stirred up huge controversy, not least against the Production Code which had passed both films, MPAA president Jack Valenti took against the violence in the film and persuaded Glenville to “mute” one particularly bloody scene.

This proved a difficult film to market outside of the star names and the adaptation of a literary bestseller. However, Duvalier inadvertently helped, launching a furious tirade in the press against the picture, threatening legal action against what he termed “inflammatory libel” and exciting the U.S. media so much it triggered a four-part television series. There was a major article in Look magazine which had sent a reporter and photographers to the set in Dahomey. And the marketing team pulled off something of a coup in persuading the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the first time to devote a complete exhibition to a movie.

Despite the top-heavy English cast, the movie premiered in New York at the Coronet where it ran concurrently at the DeMille. Although it opened in the same week as Cool Hand Luke, it trailed the Paul Newman prison drama at the box office, taking $64,000 from two cinemas compared to $92,000, also from a pair. But that was still deemed a good result and initial U.S. first run bookings were brisk – the box office termed “socko” and “boffo.”

Post-production MGM had considered turning it into a roadshow for the U.S. market but decided against it. However, for the later British launch, in January 1968,  it was blown up into 70mm and presented as roadshow in London’s West End at the Casino Cinerama and in various countries around the world. The American version, running at 156 minutes,  was edited by nine minutes though the programme was effectively lengthened to accommodate the necessary roadshow intermission.

Though named by three critics as one of the top ten films of the year, the movie received no Oscar nominations. It proved to be Glenville’s last film although he lived for another 30 years.

SOURCES: Chris Williams (editor), The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012) p130-131, 152-157; Melvyn Bragg, Rich, The Life of Richard Burton (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) p223, 231-232, 236-237; Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, Furious Love, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Marriage of the Century (JR Books paperback, 2011) p196-204; William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star, Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood (Faber and Faber, 2009) p378-379; Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise (Hamish Hamilton, 1985) p209-210; Leopold Duran, Graham Greene, Friend and Brother (Harper Collins, 1994) p153, 238, 258; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Kine Weekly, September 8, 1966, p4; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Box Office, September 16, 1966, p4; “George Glass Protests Metro’s Comedians Treads on his Teleplay,” Variety, October 26, 1966, p5; “Elizabeth Taylor to Co-Star in Comedians for MGM,” Box Office, October 10, 1966, p7; “Comedians Looms as Metro Roadshow,” Variety, April 12, 1967, p26; “Plan Comedians Premiere,” Box Office, September 11, 1967, pE3; “Urge Films Shun Shock’n’Violence for Own Sake,” Variety, October 25, 1967, p1; “Museum to Devote Entire Exhibit to Comedians,” Box Office, October 30, 1967, pE7; “Haiti Protests Showing of Comedians,” Box Office, November 6, 1967, pE4; “Comedians on Roadshow at London Coliseum,” Variety, January 3, 1967, p5; “Year-End Best Picks,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p8.

Term of Trial (1962) ***

Notable for the debuts of Sarah Miles (Ryan’s Daughter, 1970) and Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) and an ending that even in those misogynistic times was wince-inducing. The halcyon era of dull English schoolteachers being celebrated (Goodbye, Mr Chips, 1939) or finding redemption or even just managing to overcome pupil hostility (The Browning Version, 1951) were long gone, replaced by a more realistic view of the casual warfare endemic in education establishments, not quite in The Blackboard Jungle (1956) vein but running it close, with bullying, sexual abuse and ridicule running riot.

Self-pitying Graham Weir (Laurence Olivier) has failed to achieve his ambitions in part due to alcoholism, in part to antipathy to his conscientious objection during World War Two. And although he has a sexy French wife Anna (Simone Signoret) in the days when any Frenchwoman was deemed a goddess, she is embittered that the future he promised has not materialized. Like To Sir, with Love (1967) his classroom is filled with no-hopers so that he responds to the meek and innocent wishing for educational betterment.  

Weir’s only defence against endless indignity is a stiff upper lip and slugs of whisky. His lack of character contrasts with a young lad who takes revenge against constantly being chucked out of his house by his mother’s lover (Derren Nesbitt) by blowing up the man’s sports car.  

Spanning the twin cultures of religion and the razor, one falling out of favor, the other holding violent sway, opportunity to rise above kitchen-sink England lies with the self-confident such as thug Mitchell (Terence Stamp) who smokes in class, gives the teachers lip, takes photographs of girls in their underwear in the toilets, physically threatens classmates and when his target is bigger gets older men to give him a good thumping.  

A somewhat unlikely development is an end-of-term trip to Paris where the infatuated Shirley (Sarah Miles), who the good-hearted Weir has been giving free private tuition, ends up in the teacher’s bedroom and later accuses him of abuse. The impending court case and threat of imprisonment scupper Weir’s chances of promotion, make him consider suicide, and Anna to leave him.

The court scenes allow a number of famous character actors a moment of acting glory. Laurence Olivier (Bunny Lake Is Missing, 1965) must in part have been attracted to the role by a terrific court monologue. The movie is very downbeat in a country universally known never to enjoy an ounce of sunshine justifying the black-and-white movie rendition. If there is liveliness in the streets, cinemas, shops, it never translates into any of the main adult characters, all determined to uphold ancient values and endure constricted lives.

Exploiting audience expectation for verbal fireworks, the tension in Laurence Olivier’s finely judged performance comes from his untypical, unshowy delivery. You can almost hear him grinding his teeth. Simone Signoret (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) also acts against the grain, battening down her inherent sexuality, and her very presence speaks of lost hope, the fact that she was once attracted to Weir indicating he was once a very different prospect.

Sarah Miles excels as the wannabe seducer, that hesitant voice that would become her hallmark, struggling here to turn innocence into lure, expressing her adoration in heart-breaking simplicity, and yet aware that to catch Weir would require more than just the submission a guy like Mitchell requires. While hers is a stunning debut, I’m at a loss to see what marked out Terence Stamp’s typical surly teenager for speedier stardom.     

Oscar-winner Hugh Griffiths (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) is the pick of the supporting roles. A remarkable scene-stealer, a shift of his head, a flicker of his eyelashes is all he needs while sitting in the background to attract the camera from another character in the foreground. Look out for Barbara Ferris (Interlude, 1968), Derren Nesbit (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), Allan Cuthbertson (The 7th Dawn, 1964), Roland Culver (Thunderball, 1965) and Thora Hird (television’s Last of the Summer Wine, 1986-2003).  

Surprisingly un-stagey direction from Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) who was far better known as a theater director in London and Broadway. Probably in those days if you were setting a movie outside sophisticated London you had to present a gloomy version of Britain so you can’t really blame him for that and Olivier was hardly a major box office attraction so a budget trimmed of color would be a requisite. Although the older characters display grim determination, the younger ones have not had the spirit knocked out of them in the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) manner and the location shots reveal a buzzy atmosphere.

Glenville also wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by James Barlow.

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