Friday, March 30, 2012


In the tradition of reading a traditional work of art in the light of queer identity and theory, can we read the 1964 film, ‘Becket’, as a queer text?

But, first, about the film, and not about T S Eliot’s celebrated poetic drama, ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, who wrote, ““Unreal friendship may turn to real/ But real friendship, once ended, cannot be mended.”

Becket is a 1964 film adaptation of the play ‘Becket or the Honour of God’ by Jean Anouilh made by Hal Wallis Productions and released by Paramount Pictures. It was directed by Peter Glenville and produced by Hal B. Wallis with Joseph H. Hazen as executive producer. The screenplay was written by Edward Anhalt based on Anouilh's play. The music score was by Laurence Rosenthal, the cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth and the editing by Anne V. Coates. The film stars Richard Burton as Thomas Becket and Peter O'Toole as King Henry II, with John Gielgud as King Louis VII, Donald Wolfit as Gilbert Foliot, Paolo Stoppa as Pope Alexander III, Martita Hunt as Empress Matilda, Pamela Brown as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Siân Phillips, Felix Aylmer, Gino Cervi, David Weston, and Wilfrid Lawson. Becket won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for ten other awards, including for Best Picture, Best Director, and twice for Best Actor. (From Wikipedia)

There are several threads to this story of a friendship between a commoner and a king, King Henry II, who ruled England from 1154 to 1189, and Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury. The king is a Norman coloniser, Becket is a Saxon subject. Since he is made noble by the king, he has unwavering loyalty for Henry, who in turn considers him his best friend. Though Becket is a learned and reasonable man, he doesn’t have real convictions. When the king takes away the girl he had a soft corner for, and she kills herself, he even cannot be angry at the king. It is the king’s privilege to do whatever he wants. The king indeed does whatever he wants. So much so that there’s a danger of the church growing powerful and disposing the king. When Becket warns the king about the growing power of the church, and that a deal can be made with the God, and after the current archbishop of Canterbury dies, the king stumbles upon the most brilliant idea. Why not Becket becomes the archbishop? Then the king wouldn’t have any worries from the church. Things, however, do not go according to the plan. Once he dedicates himself to the church, Becket finds a higher purpose than his loyalty to the king, his integrity and his honour, more powerful than friendship, and his duties to God. Soon, the relationship is strained beyond repair. The king tries to teach Becket a lesson, then cajoles him, but Becket remains steadfast. As the king continues to fret over his hate (which was indeed love at one point), his lords decide that it would be better for everybody if Becket is out of the picture. Hence, the murder in the cathedral.

Coming back to the queer reading of the film, Peter O’Toole’s King Henry actually uses the word “love” several times in the film, in various contexts. But, this love is supposed to be more friendly and spiritual than physical. Does this matter? It does. He wants to sleep with Becket, and when he cannot, he wants to sleep with the girl Becket fancies. When the girl kills herself, and Henry fails to get a reaction from Becket, he spends the night in Becket’s bed, saying he’s scared and cannot be alone. Where does Becket sleep? We are not told.

In any case, the relationship cannot be consumed, for one thing Henry is king and Becket is a commoner, and both are painfully aware of this reality. Henry is really to do anything for Becket, and cannot relinquish the idea of him being the king, the power, the authority. And, despite all the generosity showered upon him, Becket cannot accept Henry as someone like his own, for the other is the king.

Love demands equality. Love demands merging of the differences. But, they have differences as wide as the sea. It cannot be bridged. Henry is Norman, Becket Saxon. Henry is king, Becket benefactor. Henry is politics, Becket spirituality. It was a unequal relationship and doomed from the start.

But, there was love. As Peter O’Toole plays Henry, it’s more than clear. (Does it count that the director of the film, Peter Glenville, was a gay man himself?)

Thus, at the end, the love story has to end in dead, and in repentance, like every great love story does.

More on ‘Becket’ here.

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