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Becket

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Before watching this movie, I knew three things about Thomas Becket.  

  1. He was English.
  2. He lived a long time ago
  3. He was not the King.

Now, after watching this movie and reading the Wikipedia article, I know a few more things.  He was the Archishop of Canterbury, and got in the way of King Henry II of England when Henry wanted to add another VI to his number and make the church subservient to the crown.  So, Becket got murdered.  Oh, I guess that was a spoiler.

Anyway, the film stars Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as Henry II.  It's a decent film, although it definitely occasionally has some 'old movie overacting,' which is most aggravating toward the end as O'Toole's Henry II can't decide whether he loves or hates Becket.

The historical background is a complex one, and like all good political dramas, there's no perfect tidy solution to the problem at hand.  The script makes a significant effort to humanize Becket and the King, making a big deal of their close relationship with each other, before they eventually come to loggerheads over the idea of church autonomy within the state.  I wish that this historical drama had spent a little more time on the history part, and less on the drama, but I can understand that is a matter of taste that many other viewers wouldn't share.

I found what the film almost as interesting for what it didn't say as for what it did.  For instance, the atheistic cynic in me came out at the end of the movie and widely derided the canonization of Thomas as "Well, of COURSE the church is going to canonize some martyr who died protecting the power of the church against the state."  Sometimes the hierarchical church structure gets a free pass, while sometimes it is openly mocked.  Rome is portrayed as a power-hungry political entity, while Becket's politically-motivated defense of church authority is shown to the audience as spiritually and morally grounded.  I was left wondering whether the film was intending to criticize the church, defend it, or strike some kind of middle ground.  I suppose what it ultimately is trying to do is prop up the tired protestant thesis of "structured church bad, singleminded unbending devotion to imaginary man in the sky good."

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