Becket, a 1964 historical epic about the rift that develops between Thomas Becket and King Henry II when Henry names Becket archbishop of Canterbury, is a wondrous arrival in current theaters, not only for its fine acting and refreshingly unobtrusive camera work but for the schizophrenic battle between text and subtext that frequently mirrors the passionate scenes between the two leads: Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as his king.
The first half of Becket offers an incisive, intelligent look at the dynamics of a familiar workplace relationship, wherein a person in power imagines great camaraderie with a subordinate whose palpable distaste for his boss is evident to everyone -- that is, everyone except the boss. As the boss, O'Toole portrays Henry as a blustery, insouciant ruler and a mean-spirited brat unwilling to relinquish his rakish ways or develop the political savvy necessary for effective leadership.
Flawed as a king, Henry is also flawed as a comrade. He never perceives that he treats Becket, his drinking and whoring buddy, shabbily most of the time, playfully calling him "my little Saxon" and casually depriving him of the woman he loves. However, as Burton's intense, unblinking stare throughout the film indicates, Becket is someone far more dangerous than an obedient toady or an incompetent ruler; he is a man whose professionalism and commitment to duty often override individual loyalties. Thus, the demonic inspiration that allows Henry to anoint Becket archbishop proves disastrous, as the morally adrift Becket finally finds his true calling in the church. His new duties as archbishop necessitate several clashes with the king and threaten the English unity of church and state. Henry, however, does not acknowledge his friend's hieratic devotion. He sees Becket's transformation as a capricious betrayal of a real filial bond. Where is the good man the king once loved so much?
Which brings us to the other film lurking within Becket. The second half of the film, which chronicles the tragic end of the Becket-Henry alliance, grows seriously campy -- a real queer-studies classic about sublimated male desire and the social disapproval that comes with homosexual love. Surprisingly, many irritations of the Cinemascope-period pageant -- obnoxious musical cues, spectacle for its own sake, bitchy faux-Shakespearean banter -- only serve to foreground the romance more. As O'Toole stews in an agony of desire for his lost friend, he resembles less a king than a puppet controlled by his own heartstrings, and his shrieks of "THOMAS!!" echo along the French coastline as both heartfelt and ludicrous. It's an appropriate mixed message for a silly, daring, long-overlooked film to send.