"Becket," producer Hal Wallis' opulently entertaining film of Jean Anouilh's play, is the tale of a wild and woolly British king and his God-intoxicated buddy, whom he unwisely appoints archbishop of Canterbury and then must battle. The time is the 1160s, and those two meaty historical roles, Henry II and Thomas Becket, are played by Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in 1964, the high summer of their acting careers.
"Becket," now richly restored, is one of those '60s British theatrical spectaculars that we always imagine as a bit better than they were. It's full of first-rate actors; the great sly John Gielgud plays Louis VII of France, Donald Wolfit plays the jealous bishop of London, Martita Hunt is Henry's fearsome mother Empress Matilda, and spiteful-looking Pamela Brown is Eleanor of Aquitaine-the part played by Katharine Hepburn in 1968's "The Lion in Winter," where O'Toole reprised his role as Henry.
The movie, very well "opened up" by Edward Anhalt, begins splendidly, with Henry submitting to punishment before roaring Becket admirers and a flashback to the two pals cavorting against vast backdrops of castle and green countryside, beautifully shot by Geoffrey Unsworth ("2001"). But while the tale is robustly acted, "Becket"-probably thanks to director Peter Glenville-has that empty landscape and castle feel British historical play adaptations sometimes get. It's also ripe with homoerotic undercurrents-which O'Toole mines with relish in his great hysterical performance, full of cunning, eloquence and mad outbursts.
Burton meanwhile, plays Becket as a man in love with God-to the extent that the break between the two comes when Becket defends a churchman accused (rightly, we suspect) of sexual misconduct. One can understand why this saint-to-be drives the royal prima donna crazy. Anyway, Wallis ("Casablanca") packages it all beautifully, Glenville plods showily and it's still a pleasure to see and hear these two self-destructive acting geniuses attack their speeches like a feast, a willing wench or a duel to the death.
Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. No MPAA rating. Adult (for language and sexual themes).Copyright © 2015, CT Now