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.
As unlikely as it sounds, John Wayne was once the leading contender to play Lawrence of Arabia. On January 14, 1953, the trade newspaper Variety reported that Cinerama, only known at the time for travelogs, was planning to move into feature filmmaking with productions of the hit Broadway musical Paint Your Wagon and Lawrence of Arabia, the latter with Wayne in the frame. Cinerama, as discussed in a previous Blog, was the sensation of the 1950s, the saviour of a movie industry eroded by television, prompting the boom in big-budget widescreen movies that were the hallmark of the next two decades.
It was a three-screen process, which meant filming with three cameras, somewhat unwieldy for working with actors. But This Is Cinerama, its first film, was the top earning film of 1952, even though it only played in a handful of cinemas. The driving force behind the idea was assistant board chairman Lowell Thomas, who, more than 30 years before, had single-handedly created the legend of Lawrence of Arabia.
Thomas had been a journalist covering the Middle East during the First World War. He had photographed the triumphant entry into Jerusalem in 1918 of the British forces led by General Allenby. The following year Thomas spun this event into a lecture that was launched in August in London to sensational results. Originally it was entitled ‘With Allenby in Palestine’, but after sensing the public was more interested in the unknown T E Lawrence, who he had photographed in Arab headdress, he changed the name to ‘With Allenby in Palestine and With Lawrence in Arabia’.
The show was so successful that when it came to the end of its run at the Covent Garden theatre, the owners offered 70% of the box office receipts to keep it on. Eventually, over five million people in Britain and the United States paid to see the lecture. And the Lawrence of Arabia industry was born. Thomas turned his lecture into a book which appeared in 1924 followed three years later by A Boy’s Life of Colonel Lawrence. Lawrence himself contributed to the legend with the publication of The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom (1926) and a shortened, easier-to-read, version called Revolt In The Desert (1926). Various best-selling biographies followed including Lawrence Of The Arabs (1928) by Robert Graves (Goodbye To All That), two tomes by military historian Capt Basil Liddell Hart, T E Lawrence: In Arabia And After (1934) and Colonel Lawrence, The Man Behind The Legend (1934) and Reginald H Kiernan’s Lawrence of Arabia (1935).
The first film on the subject was announced in 1929 by director Sydney Olcott for Supremacy Films, but the project came to nothing. In 1933 there was a US four-part serial by Jock Lawrence (no relation) called Flying Lawrence In Arabia, based on the exploits of Lawrence’s pilot during the war, Capt John H Norton. Two full-length feature films were announced the same year. First out of the gate was The Uncrowned King from RKO to feature top Hollywood star John Barrymore. Director Ernest Schoendanck spent several months in Mesopotamia shooting background material and by the time he returned the film had a new name, Fugitive From Glory.
In Britain movie magnate Alexander Korda’s London Films put Lawrence Of Arabia into production with Walter Hudd in the lead. Korda had acquired the rights to the biographies by Graves, Liddell Hart and Kiernan as well as Revolt In The Desert and an agreement from Lawrence’s trustees to use incidents from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. After seeing British actor Walter Hudd in the George Bernard Shaw play The Apple Cart, Lawrence had declared Hudd was his personal choice for the part. But Korda agreed to delay production until after Lawrence’s death.
That came sooner than anyone expected, in a motorcycle accident in 1935 and generated such enormous public demand in the adventurer that publisher Doubleday Doran printed a limited edition of only a dozen copies of Lawrence’s last unpublished 76,000-word book The Mint for sale at an astonishing $500,000 each. U.S. producer Sherman S. Krellberg planned a serial based on Lawrence and a play was written by Mary K. Brookes. Korda moved quickly, getting financial backing from the Bank of America, acquiring the rights to the Thomas book and taking on the author as a technical adviser. The film was to be directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan, who spent months in Jerusalem scouting locations, with a $400,000 budget. It was going to be momentous for another reason – it was planned as the first British film in color. In preparation, Korda sent to Hollywood for 8,000 items of color make-up and Natalie Kalmus of Technicolor was dispatched from the U.S. to supervise the process.
But it took another two years before Korda received the go-ahead from the UK government to film in Palestine, where there was political unrest. In the meantime, the first British color film had been released, Wings Of The Morning starring Henry Fonda. Hudd had been replaced by movie star Leslie Howard and Zoltan by U.S. director William K. Howard and the film was now being produced for Paramount. By then The Uncrowned King, produced now by Transamerica, had reached the screen, but only as a 10-part serial starring Lionel Atwill and with a 16-voice choir instead of an orchestra supplying the music. More importantly, the delay also allowed other U.S. studios to catch up.
Twentieth Century Fox dispatched director Otto Brower to Britain to begin a rival production and MGM was planning a film to star either Clark Gable or Paul Muni. In the end a Fox subsidiary New World became involved in the Korda film, but the project was called off after, it was rumored, severe government pressure. In 1938, the situation changed again. The sensation of the year was a claim by an Egyptian woman Nour Dahabi in Cairo to have found 3,500ft of film showing Lawrence on maneuvers in Arabia. MGM teamed up with Gaumont-British. And it was all change for Korda. His Paramount deal hit the rocks and he switched to United Artists, returned later in the year to the original studio, only to go back to UA who promised an increased budget. But, of course, in 1939 the beginning of the Second World War scuppered everyone’s plans.
After the war. Korda’s rights to Revolt In The Desert lapsed and he did not renew them. The American studios also gave up. John Sutro, who had helped found London Films, took over and, resurrected the project in 1947 at Rank under the banner of his Ortus Films. Although Rank was the biggest film company in Britain, involved in film production and exhibition, the film languished in development hell until 1953 when Cinerama appeared on the scene. Lowell Thomas had been instrumental in setting up the company in conjunction with Michael Todd. Thomas was the public face of the process and when projectors broke down in the middle of a Cinerama film, a short starring Thomas would fill the screen until the problem was solved.
But, as ever, the minute one company announced a Lawrence project, more popped up. David Rose claimed he was close to concluding a deal for the rights to Revolt In The Desert. British-based Anatole De Grunwald had a script by top British playwright Terence Rattigan who had written David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1951).
In 1953 De Grunwald did a deal with Paramount who wanted Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck, who bore a likeness to Lawrence, in the lead, while De Grunwald pressed for Richard Burton. In the end the John Wayne project was shelved. By 1956 De Grunwald had approached American director King Vidor, and the film was due to roll in March 1957 but Vidor pulled out, Rank re-entered the equation, investing £2 million in a De Grunwald production with Anthony Asquith as directing Dirk Bogarde. In April 1958, Rank pulled the plug. Re-enter Twentieth Century Fox with Mark Robson helming.
But in July 1959 Columbia made a deal with Sam Spiegel and David Lean who had turned Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) into the studio’s biggest hit. Meanwhile, Rattigan had turned his screenplay into the play Ross with Alec Guinness in the title role. Spiegel targeted Marlon Brando for Lawrence with a start date of summer 1960.
Spiegel had hired blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson, incurring the wrath of Columbia. Lean hired playwright Robert Bolt (A Man For All Seasons) to rewrite it. Meanwhile, Rank announced it had Alec Guinness for the lead.
In July 1960 Brando pulled out. While Spiegel scoured Hollywood for a replacement, British producer Herbert Wilcox spent $364,000 on the rights to Ross with Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, 1960) to star. Lean went after British actor Albert Finney (Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, 1960) but the actor baulked at a long-term contract. His replacement was unknown Irishman peter O’Toole. Just as unknown, Omar Sharif was fifth choice for the pivotal role of Sherif Ali.
Filming was delayed until April 1961. Oscar-winner Alec Guinness, albeit in a supporting role, was crucial to bring cachet to the picture. The presence of two other Oscar winners, Jose Ferrer and Anthony Quinn, bolstered the marquee.
Finally, filming got underway in May in Jordan, despite an incomplete script. But conditions were horrific. Swarms of locusts hampered transport, temperatures hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit, the nearest water was 150 miles away. After a break, filming resumed in Spain on December 15 but Seville, chosen for its distinctive Arabian heritage, had just suffered the worst floods in a century, delaying production. The final location was Morocco and in July 1962 four planes flew 104 cast and crew there. Conditions there were as bad as in Jordan. After a few weeks in England, filming on the 313-day schedule ended on September 21, 1962. But with the world premiere set for December 10, it was panic all the way, especially after original composer Richard Rodgers of South Pacific fame quit.
Worse, ticket sales for the roadshow were poor, in part caused by the absence of a female in the cast. By mid-October sales for the U.S. opening stood at a paltry $11,424, compared to an advance of $700,000 for Exodus and $500,000 for How the West Was Won.
The world premiere of Lawrence Of Arabia took place in front of Her Majesty the Queen on December 10 at the flagship Odeon Leicester Square in London’s West End. The American premiere occurred on December 16 at The Criterion in New York.
But the public and the critics responded. On its first Saturday in London with only two performances, it set a new one-day record of $7,200. The Criterion’s opening week in New York was $46,000 which Variety described as ‘little short of amazing.’ The film was edited shortly after launch, the original prints cut by 20 minutes.
In the end it was both a box office and critical powerhouse, winning seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, making stars out of O’Toole and Sharif, and for the past 60 years being acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.
What if redemption isn’t enough? When shame is buried so deep inside the psyche it can trigger no release? That’s the central theme of Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel.
The title character’s shame comes from, as a young officer, abandoning a ship he believed was sinking only to later discover it had been rescued with a cargo of pilgrims who point the finger of blame. He is branded a coward and kicked out of the East India Trading Company, plying his trade among the debris of humanity.
You might think he later redeemed himself by foiling a terrorist plot at great risk to his own life. But that cannot erase his shame. Nor can helping revolutionaries overthrow a despotic warlord (Eli Wallach), enduring torture and again at great risk. What other sacrifice must he make to rid himself of the millstone round his neck?
Writer-director Brooks had a solid pedigree in the adaptation stakes – The Brothers Karamazov (1958), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) – but sometimes you felt the writer got in the way of the director. That’s the case here. There was enough here to satisfy the original intended roadshow customers, great location work, grand sets, length, a big star in Peter O’Toole, but there is no majestic camerawork. There are good scenes but no great sweep and the result is a slightly ponderous film relieved by stunning action, some moments of high tension, the occasional twist to confound the audience and ingenious ways to mount a battle.
Hired killer Gentleman Brown (James Mason) has many of the best lines – “heroism is a form of mental disease induced by vanity” and “the self-righteous stench of a converted sinner” – all in reference to Jim. Everybody has great lines except Lord Jim, as introverted as Lawrence of Arabia, face torn up by self-torture, fear of repeating his original sin of cowardice and convinced he will be cast out again should people discover he had abandoned hundreds of pilgrims.
Apart from the storm at the outset, the central section in the beleaguered village is the best part as Jim finds sanctuary, love and purpose, and conjures up the possibility of burying the past.
Part of the problem of the film is the director’s need to remain faithful to the source work which has an odd construction and you will be surprised at the parts played by the big-name supporting cast of James Mason, Jack Hawkins and Curt Jurgens. Many of the films made in the 1960s were concerned with honor of one kind or another and, despite my reservations about the film as a whole, as a study of guilt this is probably the best in that category, in that this character’s conscience refuses to allow him an easy way out.
Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) is chock-full of anguish but finds it difficult to create a character of similar heroic dimensions to the David Lean picture. James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is surprisingly good in an unusual role. Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) as The General plays a variation of a character he has essayed before.
This may have been a step up the Hollywood ladder but it was backward move in acting terms given Daliah Lavi’s performance in The Demon (1963) – reviewed here some time ago. Her talent is somewhat wasted in an underwritten part. Also in the supporting cast: Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Akim Tamiroff (TheLiquidator, 1965), Andrew Keir (Quatermass andthe Pit, 1967) and Jack MacGowran (Age of Consent).
Director Richard Brooks was also on screenwriting duties.
Template for The Godfather (1972) and the current Succession. King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has to choose an heir from Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry). Helping set the Machiavellian tone are Henry’s wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), his mistress Alais (Jane Merrow) and French King Philip II (Timothy Dalton). Cue plotting, confrontation, double-crossing, rage and lust.
Some other complications: the queen is actually a prisoner, the result of organising a failed coup against her husband, the sons participating in this attempt to overthrow their father, and with Henry willing to sacrifice his mistress in order to achieve an alliance with Philip, relations are less than cordial all round. Eldest son Richard, strong and aggressive, would be the obvious choice, and should be the only choice I would guess by law, but Henry prefers the youngest son John, who is weak, while the middle son Geoffrey is the most savvy (see if you can guess how easily these characters fit The Godfather scenario, or Succession for that matter). Geoffrey reckons that even if passed over for the top job, he will rule from behind the scenes as John’s chancellor.
This is not your normal historical picture with battles, romance and, let’s be honest, costumes, taking central stage. And there’s little in the way of rousing speeches. Virtually all the dialogue is plotting. And, like Succession, there are elements of vitriol and pure comedy. In five crisp opening scenes we know everything we need to know. The King brings his family together for Xmas, the Queen freed for the occasion, to decide the succession. Richard is shown in hand-to-hand combat, the wily John leading a cavalry attack, the whiny John pouting and complaining, Alais realizing just how much a pawn she is in the game as Henry explains she is to be married off to Richard.
And if you are not the chosen one, your only chance of gaining the throne is by the back door, by having a powerful ally in your pocket, one whose armies would threaten the King, which is where Philip comes into the equation as potential kingmaker. Let the intrigue begin, especially as those who ought to be little more than bystanders – the women – have ideas of their own. “I’m the only pawn,” says Alais, “that makes me dangerous.” Despite her current status, Eleanor still owns the French province of Aquitaine and taunts her husband by revealing that she slept with his father.
The plot twists and turns as new alliances are formed between the conspiring individuals. The overbearing Henry will certainly remind you of Logan Roy, “When I bellow, bellow back.” And there is a Hitchcockian element in that we, the audience, know far more than the participants and wait for them to fall into traps. Richard is revealed as homosexual, having had an affair with Philip.
The dialogue is superb, brittle, witty, and it could have been all bombast and rage except that emotion carries the day. Henry clearly could not have wished for a better Queen than Eleanor, more than capable of standing up to him, more capable than any of his sons, and he probably wishes she was by his side rather than confined, as by law, to prison. Eleanor still retains romantic notions towards him, even as she forces him to kiss his mistress in front of her – only the audience sees the truth revealed in her eyes, not Henry who is too busy kissing. The uber-male Richard complains to Philip that he never told him he loved him.
Maternal and paternal bonds ebb and flow and throughout it all is the dereliction caused by power. A father will lose the love of the children he rejects. Or, realizing they are more powerful together than as individuals, they could turn against him. The mother faces the same fate – she risks losing the love of the ones she does not back.
Unlike Alfred the Great, the monarchs have stately castles, so the backdrops are more commanding, but once an early battle is out of the way, it is down to the nitty-gritty of plot and counter-plot. A truly satisfying intelligent historical drama.
Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) had played Henry II before in Becket (1964) and is in terrific form. Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967) won her second successive Oscar – and her third overall – in a tremendous performance that revealed the inner troubles of a powerful woman, Anthony Hopkins (When Eight Bells Toll, 1971) gave an insight into his talent with his first major role.
John Castle (Blow Up, 1966), Nigel Terry (Excalibur, 1981), Jane Merrow (Assignment K, 1968) and future James Bond Timothy Dalton, in his movie debut, provide sterling support, Dalton and Castle especially good as a sneaky, conniving pair.
Modern audiences might bristle at the idea of woman as commodity, but women in those days were the makeweights in alliances of powerful men, though the fact that they bristle at the notion as well evens up proceedings, Eleanor in particular happy to jeopardize Henry’s ambitions in favour of her own, Alais warning Henry to beware of the woman scorned.
Director Anthony Harvey (Dutchman, 1966 ) was deservedly Oscar-nominated. James Goldman (Robin and Marian, 1976) won the Oscar for his screenplay based on his Broadway play which had not been in fact a runaway Broadway hit, only lasting 92 performances, less than three months. John Barry (Zulu, 1963) was the other Oscar-winner for his superb score.
A new documentary on Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn – Audrey: More Than an Icon – provides the perfect excuse to look back at some of her work. I have already reviewed her performance in an untypical role in John Huston western The Unforgiven (1960) in which she played “a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious.” Perhaps more typical of her appeal is romantic comedy How to Steal a Million in which she once again tops the chic league.
This is her third go-round with director William Wyler after similar romantic shenanigans in Roman Holiday (1953) and the more serious The Children’s Hour (1961) and the French capital had previously provided the backdrop to Paris When It Sizzles (1964). Hepburn plays the daughter of a wealthy art forger who hires burglar Peter O’Toole to recover a fake sculpture which her father has donated to a museum unaware that its insurance package calls for a forensic examination.
Compared to such sophisticated classics as Rififi (1955), Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1966) the theft is decidedly low-rent involving magnets, pieces of string and a boomerang. But the larceny is merely a “macguffin,” a way of bringing together two apparently disparate personalities and acclaimed stars to see if they strike sparks off each other. And they most certainly do but the romance is delightful rather than passionate.
Of course, it’s also a vehicle for the best clothes-horse in Hollywood. While some actresses might occasionally stir up a fashion bonanza (Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, for example), Hepburn’s audiences for virtually every film (The Unforgiven a notable exception) expected their heroine attired in ultra-vogue outfits. De Givenchy, given carte blanche to design her wardrobe, begins as he means to go on and she first appears in a white hat that looks more like a helmet and wearing white sunglasses. Her clothes include a pink coat and a woollen skirt suit dress and at one point she resembles a cat burglar with a black lace eye mask and black Chantilly lace dress. As distinctive was her new short hairstyle created by Alexandre de Paris. Cartier supplied drop earrings and a watch. Her tiny red car was an Autobianchi Bianchina special Cabriolet.
As much as with his charisma, O’Toole was a fashion match. He looked as if he could have equally stepped from the pages of Vogue and drove a divine Jaguar. He appeared as rich as she. He could have been a languid playboy, but imminently more resourceful. But since the story is about committing a crime and not about the indulgent rich, their good looks and fancy dressing are just the backdrop to an endearing romance. Although there are few laugh-out-loud moments, the script by Harry Kurnitz (Witness for the Prosecution, 1957) remains sharp and since Hepburn’s first responsibility is to keep her father out of jail there is no thunderclap of love. An Eli Wallach, shorn of his normal rough edges, has a supporting role as an ardent suitor, Hugh Griffith with eyebrows that seemed poised on the point of take-off is the errant father while French stars Charles Boyer and Fernand Gravey put in an appearance.