Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in Becket


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



10 November



Richard Burton born, 1925

On this day in 1925, Richard Walter Jenkins was born, in Pontrhydyfen, Wales. Richard was child number 12 and his mother later died giving birth to child number 13; his father was a coal miner, drinker and gambler.

A star athlete, young Richard adopted the name Burton after his drama teacher, Philip H Burton, de facto adopted him, and it was Philip Burton who worked on the young man’s voice, turning it from a tinny nasally thing into the sonorous boom that was to make him (along with his Roman god looks and acting ability) his fortune.

Eventually nominated seven times for an Oscar, though he never won one (a record), Burton arrived in the world of film having already conquered the London and Broadway stage, his first film being the British production The Last Days of Dolwyn, for which he got good notices. His first Hollywood movie was 1952’s My Cousin Rachel and it made him an international star.

Through the 1950s and early 1960s Burton alternated London theatre, Broadway musical (he was a smash hit in Camelot) and Hollywood movies, pausing to also conquer radio with his recording of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, still definitive.

In the 1960s he became famous for marrying Elizabeth Taylor, appeared with her in her best film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and descended with her into alcoholism.

By the 1970s his drinking was so bad that it was affecting his career and his strength; his body was wasting away. Still, he was still outwardly in good enough shape to make The Wild Geese, the creaky British action drama in which Burton starred alongside Roger Moore and Richard Harris as the world’s oldest, fattest crack team of go-anywhere troubleshooters.

In 1984, having just made the film adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, he died of a stroke, aged 58, an old man.



Becket (1964, dir: Peter Glenville)

Great in so many ways, Becket is the film for seeing two titans of the screen at their absolute prime.

Richard Burton is Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard O’Toole is King Henry II. Both are friends who have become increasingly distant with the years, the film catching them at the point where it becomes easier for Henry to get rid of the “meddlesome priest” rather than have to argue with him again about whether God or the King is pre-eminent, and whether the indigenous Saxon is being too keenly oppressed by the Norman invader (of whom Henry II is one).

Apart from the performances, titanic as already said, Becket offers a complex play that is at least in part about the conquered French people’s relations with the Nazi victor – to collaborate or not? – which still works all these decades later, even if Jean Anouilh (the writer of the original play) has to torture history slightly to make events fit. And Anouilh’s injection of a homosexual subtext is also a distortion of real events, though it does add a spark to what is, after all, a love story gone bad.

Language was Burton’s first love and Edward Anhalt has done a brilliant job with Anouilh’s play, turning Becket into another example of the joustingly witty historical drama that the 1960s seemed keen on (A Man for All Seasons, Spartacus), a feat which has eluded the decades since. To even up the balance sheet a bit, it is an amazingly stagey film and seems to propose a medieval England lit with arc lamps (this, too, was a 1960s thing) and a king’s crown clearly made of cardboard. But when the rest of a film is this good, it seems almost rude to point things like that out.



Why Watch?


  • Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole
  • An intelligent, funny, genuinely dramatic script
  • A great supporting cast including John Gielgud, Sian Phillips and Donald Wolfit
  • Nominated for 12 Oscars, won one – a record number of near-misses



© Steve Morrissey 2013



Becket – at Amazon





Popes on Film

Pope Benedict in Brasil in his red loafers

News that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to hang up the red papal slippers sets the mind a-wandering. Who are the great popes of cinema? Oddly, this is a harder question to answer than you might think. For starters, there are many films that feature a pope at the edge of the action but very very few are actually about a pope. Also, the pope, though held in contempt in some quarters, gets a rather easy ride in the movies, possibly because so many Hollywood films were made by Jewish emigres with first hand experience of what can happen when religion is dragged into the foreground. Either way, popes and knuckle-whitening drama don’t seem to be a natural fit.


So here’s a list of popes on film – chosen for variety, if nothing else.



Habemus Papam (2001, dir: Nanni Moretti)

A detailed and fascinating view of the Catholic Church which weaves footage from John Paul II’s funeral into a story about a newly elected, doubt-plagued pope doing a bunk and going walkabout in Rome. It is not only beautifully acted (by Michel Piccoli) and brilliantly plotted but also hugely under-rated, possibly because Moretti ignored promptings to go for cliches and easy targets.

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968, dir: Michael Anderson)

A film from the 1960s about the 1980s which asked us to imagine the fantastic proposition of a man from Eastern Europe (Ukraine, in this case) being elected Pope. It happened of course, though the Pole Karel Wojtyla made it to the throne of St Peter as John Paul II in 1978, a little ahead of the faintly similarly named Kiril Lakota (played by Anthony Quinn) in this tortuously plotted if not downright dull biopic with small parts for actors of the calibre of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

Pope Joan (1972, dir: Michael Anderson)

Here’s director Michael Anderson’s follow-up to The Shoes of the Fisherman, another film about a pope, this time the supposedly true story of the woman who dressed up in men’s clothes and ended up being elected pontiff. It’s a bit of a stretch, imagining that anyone could mistake Liv Ullmann for a man, but the plot ignores such problems as it cuts back and forth between the present day and a thousand years ago to present a twin-track drama that manages to bore across the millennium.

The Pope Must Die (1991, dir: Peter Richardson)

An offshoot of Britain’s Comic Strip, a loose collection of comedic talent, this broad, loose and intermittently amusing farce sees the large-boned Robbie Coltrane playing the all too fallible priest accidentally elected to the top job in the Catholic Church. The idea of actually killing the pope, or even suggesting it in the title, was too much in some territories, where this film was renamed The Pope Must Diet. Come on, that’s a good “did you know”.

Only available as a VHS



Becket (1964, dir: Peter Glenville)

A cheeky attempt on my part to shoehorn in one of the outstanding films of the 1960s. The Pope, played here by Paolo Stoppa, does get a walk-on role, but the film is really a smackdown between Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket, the “meddlesome priest”. Both actors are at their bellowing, titanic peak and they act out the powerplay between church and state as a kind of gay love story gone a bit skew-whiff. Camp as a hosepipe, entirely mesmerising.


© Steve Morrissey 2013