Film review: O'Toole, Burton are at their best in '64 historical drama, 'Becket'

Published: Friday, April 20 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

Oscar nominees Peter O'Toole, left, and Richard Burton in a scene from "Becket."

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BECKET — **** — Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole; made before ratings, probable PG (violence, brief gore, mild profanity, vulgarity).

Watching older films, such as this rerelease of "Becket," is enough to make you wonder if Academy Award voters have something against Peter O'Toole.

It's hard to believe that the eight-time nominee hasn't won an acting Oscar — especially when he was nominated for his larger-than-life turn as King Henry II in this 1964 historical drama.

How strong is his performance? O'Toole manages to get the best of co-star Richard Burton — who was also Oscar-nominated for this film.

Not that the film turns into an "act-off" or that it features hammy, showy acting. Both O'Toole and Burton are at their best, and the material is surprisingly topical and resonant in the 21st century, broaching such issues as ethnic cleansing and church vs. state.

An adaptation of a French play, the film examines the rather complex relationship between the headstrong 11th-century English king and his lifelong friend, Thomas a Becket (Burton).

Becket has served the king in several capacities — he's been his valet, his bodyguard and a military adviser. Now Henry is steamrolling his friend's appointment to one of the most powerful religious posts in the kingdom, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Henry wants someone he can trust in the position. But to his dismay, Becket takes the religious office seriously and the two quickly butt heads, straining their friendship and putting Becket's life in peril.

This 2004 restoration of the film — a precursor to its DVD release next month — features brightened colors and "sweetened" sound but no extra footage. And it's a film that doesn't need any.

The material remains relevant, and the film as a whole is completely engrossing. (It may be nearly 2 1/2 hours long, but it doesn't feel like it.)

There is also an excellent supporting cast, led by John Gielgud, who stands out in a somewhat cheeky role as King Louis VII of France.

"Becket" was made before ratings but would probably receive a PG for some strong violence (stabbings and slashings), brief gore, scattered mild profanity (religiously based), mildly suggestive language and slurs based on nationality. Running time: 148 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com