What we have here is a solid five stars worth of acting talent in a slightly shaky four stars worth of movie. The problem is that even in 1964, Becket was a bit on the old-fashioned side—the sort of historical drama that relies too much on a thin veneer of historical accuracy and its own self-professed importance. Despite the fact that the content touches on some rather earthy topics and contains undeniable elements of gay subtext concerning the relationship between Becket (Richard Burton) and Henry II (Peter O’Toole), the film itself relies too much on the idea of being a historical pageant. As a movie, it’s the kind of thing much prized by persons who are impressed by seeing real cobblestones on the roadways. Part of the blame must go to director Peter Glenville. Never the most exciting of filmmakers, Glenville only occasionally rises to the occasion with visuals worthy of the material (usually in crowd scenes or scenes of religious ritual). For every striking or apt composition, there must be a dozen indifferent ones.
However, nothing can really detract from the literate dialogue of the film (and its source play) or the unreservedly brilliant performances of O’Toole and Burton in the lead roles. Rather than seeing two acting titans pitted against each other, Becket affords us the opportunity of witnessing two tremendous talents bring out the best in each other. Neither tries to outdo the other, but simply to stay on the same lofty plane. (Perhaps this is the reason that neither took home the Best Actor Oscar, which instead went preposterously to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady.) For this alone, Becket would be worth seeing, but it’s a film that also scores in its ability not to let the important trappings embalm the characters, who invariably come across as human and real. As filmmaking, it’s a mixed bag, but as drama, it’s anything but.