If the present print does not quite match the crystalline clarity of the original -- and there are some imperfections -- it's nonetheless a feast for the eyes. This most welcome restoration was to premiere Jan. 26 at New York's enterprising Film Forum, after which there will be a nationwide rollout (from MPI Media Group and Slowhand Cinema) in more than 30 cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington.
The 12th-century saga tells of the deep friendship and later conflict between England's King Henry II (O'Toole) and his friend, Sir Thomas a Becket (played by Richard Burton at his "Camelot"/"Hamlet"-era peak), and how their days of drinking and womanizing came to an end when the monarch decided to appoint Becket archbishop of Canterbury.
Much to Henry's surprise, Becket was transformed into a deeply spiritual man of God, who took his new responsibilities very seriously.
Interestingly, Anouilh erred in thinking Becket was a Saxon rather than a member of the ruling Norman class, and wrote the play from that perspective, only later learning of his mistake. But he let it stand, figuring that the class differential, though historically inaccurate, would enhance the drama. And it does.
The film charts how Becket went head-to-head with the king over the vigilante murder of an erring priest by one of Henry's knights. Henry's famous despairing cry, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" -- leads to Becket's martyrdom in his cathedral.
Henry's tortured conflict -- feeling raging anger but still loving his old friend -- is brilliantly etched by O'Toole, while Burton is utterly convincing as a man not entirely comfortable in the rabble-rousing period, and one who assumes the clerical mantle with the greatest sincerity.
The film has other outstanding performances, such as Donald Wolfit as a duplicitous bishop, and John Gielgud as King Louis of France, to whom Becket appeals when Henry first turns on him.
Sian Phillips (then O'Toole's wife) as Becket's mistress, Pamela Brown as Eleanor, and Martita Hunt as Henry's imperious mother are equally superb.
Admittedly, director Peter Glenville's film is rather stagy and leisurely paced, with more talk than you'd see in today's films, but the dialogue is uncommonly literate. (Edward Anhalt's screenplay won an Oscar.) Some of the hairstyles and makeup, particularly for the women bedded by the carousing duo in the early scenes, are pure 1960s.
There are some crass expressions, and (by today's standards) some tame sexuality. When first released, the film was hailed by the Catholic Film Office as a "mature drama about integrity of conscience."
Though recommended mostly for adults, "under proper direction adolescents might view it with profit," the Catholic Film Office said then, and so, it is now classified A-II -- adults and adolescents. It was not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.
These movies have been evaluated for artistic merit and moral suitability by the media reviewing division of Catholic News Service. The reviews include the CNS rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.
The classifications are as follows:
A-I -- general patronage;
A-II -- adults and adolescents;
A-III -- adults;
L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
O -- morally offensive.
Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.