The blingiest guns ever: Romeo + Juliet
Valentine's Ash Wednesday

A tale of two Toms: Becket and More

I'm binging on religious movies of late, stacking them up in my shopping cart for future purchase.   Last week I watched Becket because it was free and this week I managed to craw through A Man for All Seasons over the course of two nights.

(Yet, it's been busy around here, hence light posting.)

Both films are about how a king has a falling out with a loyal subject over a matter of faith, and rather than respect that difference and sustain their friendship, the tyrannical, ungrateful monarch has him killed.

Beckett stars Richard Burton as the titular Thomas Becket, a court flunky for Henry II (Peter O'Toole) who gets finagled into the position of Archbishop of Canterbury.  Once installed, Henry assumes he will do his bidding and bring the Church in England to heel.  Instead, Becket has a conversion experience, gives up his partying ways and throws himself into the life religious.  At first, everyone assumes its a game, but once Henry realizes he's sincere, he makes certain remarks indicating he wants his former friend dead, and four knights murder him right there in the cathedral (thus giving T.S. Eliott the name for his play about it: Murder in the Cathedral).

The Catholic Church at that time was in robust condition, and as a result, Henry was forced to do a humiliating public penance and the knights were ordered to take religious vows and join the Crusades. 

It's a good movie, and who would not enjoy watching to great actors battle it out.  There's a bit of (unintended?) irony in that the script plays up the Norman vs Saxon thing, claiming Becket is a Saxon while having him played by a Welshman.

The fate of St. Thomas Becket is something of a forerunner to Sir Thomas More's resistance and ultimate martyrdom by Henry VIII.  A Man for All Seasons is a remarkably quotable film, full of devastating rejoinders, and while Robert Shaw gets prominent mention as Henry VIII, his is really a bit part - Leo McKern's Thomas Cromwell is really the main antagonist.

A Man for All Seasons is something of a courtroom drama, and it's climactic scene is where Cromwell and More face off at trial.  To any honest observer, More wins the case, but it doesn't matter because Henry VIII was in fact a tyrant who cared nothing for the law.  His judicial murder of his friend and confidant was mirrored by his treatment of his wives.

Thus the two cases are the same, but different insofar as the later Henry had full knowledge of what he was doing, while his ancestor could claim that his ill-considered outburst was misinterpreted.

The Tudor king certainly believed it, because he had Becket's shrine utterly destroyed, including the saint's body.  Indeed, as much as he has been lionized by British historians as a forward-thinking herald of the modern age, a more balanced view sees him as utterly ruthless dictator who struck down much of his country's culture and heritage on a whim.

In his single-minded pursuit of a male heir, he fractured his realm and laid the basis for repeated rebellion and ultimately civil war and the abolition of the monarchy itself.

All that, and his line still ended.

Both films stress the important of fidelity to God, and that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us.  Too much modern entertainment treats death as the greatest tragedy, and one must do everything possible to escape from it.

This is likely because modern writers fear death so much, and have no concept of faith - what the know if Christianity they mock.

But there was a time when serious-minded people were fascinated by stories of faith and moral courage.  Both films are therefore well worth watching.


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Interesting post.

I haven't seen Becket in many years, but recall enjoying the performances, and thinking that Pamela Brown was a weird choice for Eleanor of Aquitaine. I had taken a French class on medieval poetry at MSU, and the professor was besotted by Eleanor and Henry II and I expected a great beauty.

Have you seen the Charleton Heston version of A Man for All Seasons? It was closer to the original Bolt play and included the "common man" that the earlier film removed, maybe as too stagey. Most of the criticism of the remake centers around Heston being American, Reaganesque, and a 2A advocate.

Heston played More as less stoic and more emotional than the Scofield performance, Whitrow was better than McKern (I never liked McKern), and Vanessa Redgrave couldn't hold a candle to Wendy Hiller.

Robert Bolt seemed to specialize in works on moral courage. A Dry White Season certainly qualifies and even Ryan's Daughter highlights the absence of this courage in Mr. Ryan (Mc Kern again) while highlighting it in the parish priest and in Shaughnessy. It was a shame that David Lean treated the story as an epic event. It was not.

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