Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Church and State

So, as a stark example of how movies change as people age, I offer up Becket (1964, directed by Peter Glenville). When I first saw the film as a teen, I enjoyed it a lot. You had powerhouse performances from two legitimately great actors. You had "very serious themes." You had historical pageantry. You even had a bit of naughtiness in the early part of the film, the part that details Thomas Becket's life before becoming a saint. This is to say nothing of the homoerotic overtones, which the young, queer me immediately glommed onto. I originally watched this film with my mother, who loved this kind of history porn, so I have fond memories of it that have nothing to do with the film's actual qualities.

This was NOT the same film I saw last week, though. What I saw last week was a tendentious bore. I realized what the problem was when we got to the excommunication scene. At that point, I realized that neither side of the film's political dilemma had any kind of moral authority. The movie sides with The Church, though it gives The State its due. The hero of the film is clearly Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Cantebury and a martyr for the Holy Catholic Church. The film is adulatory of Becket's transformation from a womanizing rake into a pious champion of Christianity. Frankly, as he becomes more pious, he becomes less interesting. But that's not my issue. The fulcrum of Becket's clash with King Henry II is that Henry won't turn over a priest that has allegedly committed a crime for The Church's justice. In siding with The Church, the film is saying that there should be two standards of justice, one for The Church, and one for everyone else. Even if I wasn't an atheist, this idea would be anathema to me for many many reasons. We've seen how the Catholic Church cleans its own house in the years since the film was made, after all. So basically, Thomas Becket, and the film for that matter, are arguing in favor of the benefit of clergy. In this regard, it is completely regressive.

The alternative is an authoritarian State, though. Henry II has about the same moral authority as Thomas Becket. Vested with the divine right of kings, he rules absolutely. The early parts of the film demonstrate this in vivid detail. While Henry isn't Caligula, say, he plays in the same ballpark. For the most part, Henry doesn't even care about the idea of equal justice under the law. He plays politics for advantage. He wants to expand his own powers. For what? Vanity? It's certainly not an altruistic drive. I would suggest that the authority of Henry's state is also completely illegitimate. So the film offers a choice between two overweening powers, neither of which is vested with a justified authority. On the whole, it's a very confused, very vile tangle.

Still, palace intrigue is fun to watch, and so is Peter O'Toole as Henry, though I would argue that his Henry II is a LOT more interesting in The Lion in Winter than he is here. There's a certain amount of twitchiness to his performance that invests it with some life, and he was still gorgeous when the film was made. Burton, on the other hand, starts reserved and then withdraw into a fog of piety. It's not one of his better performances.


Deborah said...

It is utterly without subtlety, it's bombastic, it's dull. It suffers mightily in comparison with Lion in Winter, in which Peter O'Toole plays the same character, still a loudmouth, with wit and connivance and delight.

Mykal said...

Dr.: Good Post. It is interesting how films effect us differently as we go through life. I loved this one, too, as a teenager. Now, I find it more than a touch showy.

A film never changes, of course, but we do. I wonder how this film will effect us when we are in our late years? I’ll have to watch it in about twenty years, God willing, see what I think then. I wonder if it will resonate again. -- Mykal

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Deborah. Yeah. It does suffer mightily from the comparison. The Lion in Winter just shows what dullards the filmmakers on Becket were.

Mykal, yeah. I'll be interested to see how this plays when I'm sixty.