Becket
R1 - America - MPI Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (3rd September 2007).
The Film

Based on a French play entitled "Becket of the Honour of God" by Jean Anouilh, this 1964 British production was released to critical praise for its direction, performances and many impressive technical achievements in production design, costumes and photography among other attributes. Long heralded as an epic masterpiece despite the film's scale being much smaller than other historical monolithic productions such as "Ben-Hur" (1959), "Spartacus" (1960) or "Laurence of Arabia" (1962), it's scale has more to do with the broadness of the camera's lens and the depth of its intricate and astounding production design rather than grand battle scenes. It is very much a faithful adaptation of the original source material and is in many ways a very theatrical piece of cinematic art.
"Becket" tells the story of saxon protégé Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), a cavorting libertine who the Norman King of England, Henry II (Peter O'Toole) calls him his friend, drinking and whoring buddy. Henry loves Becket and his devotion and alliance to his kingdom, and as a close confidant elevates him to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, his motivation for this action is to place someone he can trust and control. However much to the King's displeasure, Becket, in spite of himself, begins to find a sense of honor, new found dignity and devotion to God. He takes his new position very serious as to completely challenge the crown and thus drives the King and Becket apart as friends and an epic dispute is the result.
The film's impact comes from the script and the performances of the two leads. Edward Anhalt's adaptation of the play is nothing short of marvelous displaying brilliant unpretentious dialogue that most actor's dream of. The Academy also felt the same way awarding Anhalt with the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. The film's structure follows the development of Becket's relationship with the King during their more sordid affairs of drinking and gallivanting around the kingdom, keeping Becket at his side at almost all times through to the transition into dispute that their relationship takes when Becket takes his new found power and position very seriously until his untimely end. Bringing to life these dramatic moments are two legends of the screen, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole both of which deliver powerful turns. The acting style is very typical of films of that era with a sort of theater-like grandstanding, especially from O'Toole who appears larger than life and occasionally over-the-top, while Burton's Becket comes across with understated naturalistic approach to the character. Regardless of the differences in performance types they work well together to highlight the personality differences between the two characters.
Although the film lacks battle scenes and grand vista-like locations that are common in most epic films it still manages to capture the viewer, the film's cinemascope palate gives it a broad range despite the majority of the film taking place inside the dark and gloomy walls of castles and medieval churches, which stand out in all their gothic glory. "Becket" is one of those films that stands along side a list of few that can be called some of the best films of all time, the film received an incredible 12 Academy Award nominations including 'Best Actor' for both Burton and O'Toole and 'Best Supporting Actor' for John Gielgud (despite the fact he only appears for a few minutes playing King Louis VII of France) and for the first time this film has been lovingly restored by Film Foundation to it's former glory allowing audiences to see it in decent condition. If you're already a fan of this film then this DVD edition from MPI will make an excellent addition to your collection, be warned though, if you've not seen the film it is very much a dialogue based drama that runs for nearly two and a half hours so it's not for everyone.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1, this anamorphic widescreen image presents the film in a newly restored print. The original negative was used to strike this new edition by The Film Foundation through the Academy Film Archive. This new print was also released theatrically in selected US cities. Although the image has been lovingly restored there are a few flaws inherent with this print, firstly the colors are rather flat and have (although only a handful of times) exhibited some bleeding. This is of course not a technical fault of the mastering but rather indicative of film stock of that era. Some detail is nicely presented but the overall image is a little soft. On the positive side the print was very clean with only a few instances of dirt and white specs, blacks hold up well and as far as I can tell this are the best the film has looked on any home video format.

Audio

Four audio tracks are included on this release, a newly mixed English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track as well as English, French and also Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo tracks. While the stereo track is welcomed it's a little disappointing that the film's original mono soundtrack was not included. Despite this I chose to view the film with its English 5.1 track, this new surround mix takes the original mono elements and basically up-mixes them for the 5.1 format. The track is also very clean with no hiss, pops or drop outs so it has been given a thorough clean-up. The dialogue is clear and distortion free, the film's score comes across quite effectively, although sometimes a bit too loud and the mix was rather front heavy with very little surround activity. Overall it was adequate considering it's not presented in the film's original mono format.
Optional subtitles are included in English only.

Extras

First up we have a feature-length audio commentary with actor Peter O'Toole moderated by film critic Mark Kermode. This track runs as a Q&A rather than a screen-specific track, O'Toole comments on his familiarity with the original source material, seeing the play and how the film is a faithful adaptation of that play with very little changes. He talks about his relationships with the cast members and also the film's director and producer as he shares stories and memories from the production. He shares an incredible amount of information regarding the shooting, the sets and also character analysis including motivations and how the actor's personalize the character to give them more depth. With the help of moderator Kermode, O'Toole provides an excellent track that's filled with wonderful and valuable film trivia and is worth listening to.

Next up is an interview with the film's composer Laurence Rosenthal which runs for 12 minutes 23 seconds, in this recently produced video clip Rosenthal comments on the Gregorian chant influence on the film's score, teaching Burton to chant, the challenges he faced as a young and unknown composer especially in composing the film's final piece and he also shares his thoughts on the new restoration of the film.

Another interview follows with the film's editor Anne V. Coats which runs for 7 minutes 13 seconds. In this clip she talks about hr involvement in the film and having recently done "Laurence of Arabia" (1962) prior to working on "Becket" and how both films were very different considering that "Becket" had no action sequences at all. She comments on the greatness of the two lead performers as well as sharing a few memories from the production and also her favorite scenes to cut.

Next is a 1967 archival interview with Richard Burton by Kenneth Tynan which runs for 13 minutes 58 seconds, this clip was originally produced for the BBC and focuses on Burton's stage career, from getting his first break by his mentor John Gielgud, on being directed, his leading man status and the solitude of carrying a lead performance among other things.

Another archival interview is included from 1977 with Richard Burton by Ludovic Kennedy and runs for 12 minutes 24 seconds, this clip was also produced for the BBC and takes a closer look at Burton's drinking problem in an open and candid manner that's hardly seen today. In fact many top actors would probably hide their substance abuse problems for fear of bad press but here Burton openly talks about alcoholism as well as his acting career, the uneasiness he felt after achieving immediate success and dealing with fame among other things.

A still gallery follows and includes 47 images compromising of lobby cards, production photos, poster art and print advertisements.

Also included is the film's original theatrical trailer that runs for 4 minutes 79 seconds.

Rounding out the extras is an original TV spot which runs for 28 seconds.

Overall

The Film: A Video: B+ Audio: B Extras: B+ Overall: B+

 


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