Armond White‘s N.Y. Press review of Becket is more than a little similar to an appraisal I wrote last year….odd. Easily the most single-minded Manhattan- maverick critic (at times almost peculiarly so), White is an absolute must-read because of his occasional grand-slams — reviews that pinpoint not only the artistic dimension but the agenda of certain films, like when he called Billy Elliott “a balletomane chickenhawk fantasy.”
“Ostensibly the story of King Henry II appointing his confident Thomas a’ Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury and then reneging on his bequest — a decision that historically split England’s religious affiliation — Becket is mostly fascinating as a love story between two men,” he writes. “Jean Anoulih‘s stage play is strengthened by the conflict of worldly affection and spiritual devotion when Becket’s born-again allegiance to God takes precedent over his fealty to Henry. This movie version is deeper than anything the makers of Brokeback Mountain could ever conceive — or admit to.
“Reseeing Becket in light of the recent so-called breakthrough for gay film subjects makes one realize how advanced mainstream filmmaking used to be. Peter O’Toole‘s Henry and Richard Burton‘s Becket profess their regard for each other with bold openness and extravagant anguish. Precisely because this affection remains Becket’s subtext, it is never treated as a self-congratulatory end in itself. O’Toole and Burton are artistically free to fully vent their characters’ emotions.”
Director Peter Glenville “subtly encodes this historical epic with sexual intimations: Henry and Becket’s tandem escapades, phallic candles, bareback horseriding, etc. But he takes a dry approach to the complications of lost-love and how these legendary leaders deprived themselves — Becket through an excess of religious fervor, opposing the King’s edict out of personal arrogance; Henry through unchecked emotionalism and personal vengeance.
“This psychological depth gives Becket an edge over the other ’60s dramas about the Plantagenet rulers (A Man for All Seasons, The Lion in Winter, Anne of the Thousand Days) and puts it close to the sophistication of Lawrence of Arabia and, yes, My Own Private Idaho.”