As the years roll by it's all too easy to forget just how good an actor Richard Burton actually was. In a sense his off-screen presence overshadows the work he did in-front of the camera and that's a shame - at his best, and 'Becket' shows him at the height of his powers, Richard Burton was a superb actor.
The film focuses on that well-known medieval spat between Church and state. Frustrated at every turn by the Church's refusal to help fund his wars against France and by its insistance that criminal offences committed by the clergy should be tried by the church, and not by the state, King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) takes the opportunity presented by the timely death of the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint in his place his good friend Thomas Becket. Sadly, for the King, his youthful companion, so recently a willing participant in the traditional medieval kingly pursuits of drinking, hunting, eating to excess and ardently pursuing the attractive female portion of the peasantry, suddenly begins to take his duties to the Church far too seriously.
The historical Becket, played by the charismatic and charming Burton, does rather well out of this. Historically Becket is often regarded as a rather pompous and self-important individual, more interested in his own reputation than in the health of the Church, but here he comes across as a noble, troubled and intelligent man. The King, admirably played by Peter O'Toole, is charming and dashing, but quick to temper and prone to violent outbursts. The scenes between the two great actors are electric: two forces of nature clashing and sparking against each other, both perfectly capable of seeing the other's point of view and yet neither willing to budge an inch. Splendid support is provided by John Gielgud as the charming and perfidious King of France - he's only on screen for a few minutes, but he steals every scene in which he appears. Also worth a mention are the hilarious scenes in which Henry castigates his long suffering wife and (in his own words) dismally uninspiring children. Peter O'Toole is best known for the dramatic and weighty qualities he brought to the roles he played, but he could do humour and in these brief scenes he displays a real gift for comic timing.
I wish they still made costume dramas like this. It's powerful stuff, beautifully played by the two leads who really do spark off each other, and it is truly gorgeous to look at. The script, based on a stage play, is excellent, being beautifully paced and allowing the viewer to build up a real sense of knowing just what it is that makes the two protagonists tick. It's dramatic stuff and well worth a look. Medieval history has never been so interesting!