At this time at the end of the year, I’ve recently fallen into the oddly specific hole of “The two historical movies from the 1960s about King Henry II of England’ dramas as portrayed by Peter O’Toole.” The first I’ve watched being The Lion in Winter (1968), one of my personal all-time favorites, as well as its predecessor, Becket (1964). What strikes me about both movies, both originally based on plays, is that while on the surface they are stories about history, they are ultimately about the experience of intense, overwhelming, destructive love. While The Lion in Winter is about the agony of Henry’s love and hate for a woman, Becket is about his agony of love and hate for the man he appointed to Archbishop—the titular Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) who, despite his friendship with Henry, chose to pursue the honor of God rather than that of the king. I want to eventually write about both films, but I’d like to start talking about Becket. It is flawed, frustrating, and honestly mediocre as a whole, a movie too inflated on its own aesthetics of pseudohistorical pomp without a strong thematic substance to hold it up. However, I personally found aspects of it compelling as a work in the annals of media about pathetic men defeated by sheer intensity and physicality of feelings. It’s something that overlaps with my thoughts on transformative fan works in the context of historical fiction, as well the interesting and sensual phenomenon that happens when you create a work that is, as people say, “so misogynist it loops back around to being gay.”
Historical Inaccuracy: The Lie that Tells a Truth
Jean Anouilh, the original writer of the 1959 play upon which the movie was based, Becket, or the Honor of God did not really do much research when writing the play, apparently basing it off a fairly unreliable source that contained various inaccuracies.
“I haven’t gone reading books about who Henry II really was – nor even Becket, for that matter. I have created the king that I needed, and the ambiguous Becket that I needed.” (translated from French on this stackexchange thread, from the written preface of the play)
While this approach frustrates the amateur historian in me, it is also deeply understandable as an artist and reader of transformative works and fiction. History will always exist as it is, but as artists we choose what to portray and what to emphasize; figures and characters can become proxies for exploring current day themes and passions. As much as I crave accurate and factual education, I also enjoy seeing what is produced and revealed by using historical figures and characters as a medium of expression. And of course, it is more satisfying to me when a writer is aware that they are writing fiction, rather than clinging to an illusion that their artistic vision is actually The Most Accurate Ever (note: I say this from experience, as someone who once in a fit of arrogance tried to write something I thought would be The Most Historically Accurate Story Ever, and was….very much not. It did, however, reveal a lot about myself.)
It’s notable that in the play dialogue tags itself, Henry is not named—he is “The King,” with an unnamed Queen and Queen Mother, adding a further layer of fictionalization and stylization to the portrayal. Anouilh, aware of his inaccuracies, does not let that stop him from creating the kind of story that he wanted to tell—a story about two men, and their transition from friends and brothers to figureheads of opposing institutions.
“Fanfiction,” Transformative Work, and Queer Interpretations
Of course, Anouilh’s intentions, as well as the intentions of the directors, screenwriters, etc, are only part of the equation when it comes to what a story means as a whole. The lens through which one views things definitely makes a difference, and this is where my thoughts come in. In the conversational fandom parlance of which I am accustomed, I’ve jokingly called Becket a “peak misogynist insane yaoi” and while I can certainly find more elegant modes of description, that really is the core thesis of my appraisal. Anyone familiar with slash or fujoshi fandom spaces will understand where I am coming from. Time and time again there have been jokes about how media that centers so solely on the intensity of relationships between men to the detriment of women characters have a tendency to end up being “So misogynist it becomes gay” and Becket is, if not the most famous example of this phenomenon, a very outstanding one. It is blatantly a story about love, and a man’s all-encompassing dramatic love and desire for a man to the detriment of, well, pretty much all his relationships.
Anouilh’s freewheeling approach to history also to me parallels the way people often will joke or complain about slash fanfic writers who watch or read a piece of media and then zoom in obsessively over the characters they want to ship and focus everything about them, ignoring all other plot points. “Why do people have to make everything about shipping” they say, claiming that it “devalues” broader characters and story. As mentioned above, Anouilh straight up says that he is not telling an accurate “canonical” history, and is more interested in the story of the relationship that he almost completely made up and decided to focus on, adding layers of intensity and relational aspects that were not present in original “text” of history. And you know what? Good for him!
Even if it wasn’t intended to be sexual or romantically charged, one can’t help but watch this movie and read it as a love story, or breakup story. Becket and his king (styled in the promotional materials, notably Henry is consistently referred as “his king”—there is a possessive, belongingness to the pairing) are always together, physically close and intimate, soft and jesting in words to each other, with levels of unique trust and affection that is framed as being theirs only. After feeling betrayed, Henry goes through the story becoming more unhinged and upset, but still feeling great passion for his friend—lashing out against him, but lashing out even more when others speak badly of him. He longs for the connection they had before, less as king and nobleman but as two friends laughing and hunting, going about their lives without a care in the world, but is deeply bitter at the responsibilities and structures that hold them apart. Henry’s love for Becket and disregard for the world itself comes through in his famous speech (filmed with impressive uneasy effect with a split diopter lens) after it becomes clear Becket will choose God over him, where he asserts “I would have gone to war with all of England’s might and even against England’s interest, I would have given my life away laughingly for you—only I loved you, and you didn’t love me.” It is not the first or last time that Henry expresses his love and heartbreak in the film. He is also, very much not the best friend to Becket, being often pompous and childish and obsessive at various times, but the film gives him a depth of to his reactions and behavior even as he careens into irrationality.
I could probably go through the film, scene by scene and pick out even more things that stand out to me in more subtle and sensual ways, especially in the beginning— from Becket toweling off and dressing him, to the exchanges of power and trust that happen in the throne room while addressing the church, the unsettling ways in which their interactions with women frame their relationships—I don’t think it’s too hard to see where queer interpretations and connections would arise. You can even watch it here on YouTube or borrow from the library or free on Tubi for yourself and see what you think.
There are, of course, women in the story that serve to make things ostensibly heterosexual. However, they function less as actual characters and more as plot points and objects that serve as obstacles, points of conflict between them or commentators on Becket and the King’s relationship. The role of the women is one of the major elements that made Becket less enjoyable for me. The aspect of Becket and Henry’s main form of bonding being wingmen and going “wenching” together with various disposable women being traded between them, is typical for the kind of story and characters (and for the historical Henry at least, womanizing was a notable trait). But it was also rather annoying seeing the portrayal of Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine, historical figures that were, in real life, intelligent, powerful, and influential, greatly reduced to midcentury stereotypical tropes of the “nagging jealous wife” and “distant overbearing mother.” When Henry, frustrated at his degrading friendship with Becket, and at the structures of church and state restraining him from being able to act, he lashes out at the acceptable targets of his rage—his wife, his mother, and his young sons.
With the sheer disdain that Henry shows towards his family, it’s easy to see how his children—shown briefly as young boys play-fighting for the throne—will eventually, in real life and in other fictional depictions, be the ones to rebel against him and be thorns in his side for the rest of his life. The dismissiveness towards women does not feel out of character or out of place in the story, but still is something that affects my own emotions towards it, especially since there are plenty of stories that explore similar themes—even in similar time periods-that manage to treat female characters, even side characters, as actual people, even if their characters within the story do not.
A Moral Path – Too simplistic?
Anouilh’s historical plays of this period are said to present “a moral path in a world of corruption and manipulation” (only according to the citation on Wikipedia-I’m not familiar with the book it cites, and am not sure if it is a quote from Anouilh himself or one written about him), and it’s easy to see how Becket fits into that. Henry is worldly, lusty, obsessive, attached, and his love for Becket, while passionate, is also selfish and leads to violence and cruelty. Meanwhile Becket is thoughtful, contemplative, and in the world of the story, changes a moment of nepotism and corruption into an opportunity of spiritual self-transformation, loving Henry but separating himself from Henry’s sins by serving the higher honor of God. It’s easy to read a fairly standard moral message into it, religious or not, and from what I can see Anouilh was partially inspired by conflicts in contemporary circles.
However, to me the thematic and spiritual conflict in the story—between the worldly shitbag Henry vs. Godly Becket—felt a little too easy, and also a little hollow, especially since the performances of the characters seemed to suggest that it was building up to more complex issues than it actually ended up boiling down to. The scale of the story, in its grand visuals and setting of great cathedrals and kingdoms, seems to suggest that it wants to comment on Big Important Universal Themes, but the lack of grounding, probably based on the lack of historical research makes the attempts at Big Themes feel shallower to me.
This becomes apparent especially when thinking about the actual history of Becket and Henry. The historical Thomas Becket was a more complex figure, someone who did indeed become a religious ascetic, but who was also deeply embroiled in power struggles, and who I find personally more interesting as a figure whose legend and posthumous reputation and cult as a saint is just as if not more intriguing than the man himself. From the brief depiction of his personality that I read in Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens who Made England, he also comes across to me as being equally assholeish as Henry, reflecting various material and political interests of the day, just in a different way. If the story had wanted to lean more into the broader and grander political intrigue themes, I feel like Becket would have needed to inherently be less saintly and aspirational—perhaps someone who does sincerely seek a “moral path” as mentioned above, but whose attraction to asceticism and devotion also reveals his own humanity more clearly. In my layman opinion, something like that would have made for a more compelling and grounded theme. Instead, intentional or not, it relies very hard on the tiresome and rather dangerous assumption that a man’s pursuit of God, and by extension service to the church, is something that naturally leads to morality.
A Bodily Experience
Overall, the political commentary, spiritual morality, and grand themes and plot itself of the movie are less than spectacular. What carries this movie, for me, is the raw intensity of emotion displayed, the tormented love and conflict that denies rational decisions. Near the fateful end, the Queen Mother chides Henry for his “unhealthy and unnatural” obsession with Becket, calling on her son to be a man, like his late father, and commit to executing or exiling Becket, to which he rejects her. Shortly after, in the company of his barons, in a drunken expression of honest pain and love, he expresses his mad frustration and vulnerability—“I am as useless as a woman, as long as he lives, I tremble, I shake—I am the king and I shake!” This leads to him making the infamous alleged proclamation: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” In the world of this story, Henry’s expressions of love and hate are incommunicable—the Barons, not understanding Henry’s love, interpret his words as a call to violence, and Becket’s doom is sealed.
The movie opens and ends with Henry doing penance for his sin and reflecting on how his thoughtless passions led to his friend’s dastardly end. However it interestingly feels less spiritual and moral to me than it maybe it set out to be, or the way some people seem to interpret it. For a story that, in text seems to want to warn against the effects of corrupt worldliness, it revels in its own eroticism and passion, and the thing it warns against is the part that is the most interesting, relatable, and entertaining aspect, that serves to buoy everything else about the okay-decent plot.
As childish and petulant and abusive as Henry is, watching him struggle with comprehending and expressing the enormity of emotion as it wracks his body and soul in ways he finds frightening and overwhelming is compelling and human. It is fitting that his penance is also something equally sensual—getting whipped by the Saxon priests he earlier decried. Fitting with the strengths and failings that Becket presents, it feels less like a thematic punishment concluding a grand and complex tale of historical and spiritual significance, and more like that of a man finally putting his feelings and body in alignment.
- Thoughts about language: Personally, when it comes to queer interpretations, especially of older works, I’m less interested in the debates of “canonicity” or “representation” or whatever, and more interested in interesting dynamics and seeing the ways in which artists and characters behave wildly and intimately onscreen or on page. In fact sometimes I hesitate to say “queer interpretations” lest people get the wrong idea due to years of representation politics, and why in casual speech I will say stuff like “yaoi dynamics.” It’s crude and not entirely accurate word usage so I try not to write as such in my long form things, but in my circles manages to communicate a specific connotation of weird non-heteronormal fictional indulgence and intensity, that feels separate, to me, from a “good or bad representation of Actual Queer Characters” discussion.
- Okay. Now that you’ve read this far I’m just going to say it since I couldn’t find a fitting place to put it anywhere else. Queer interpretations or not, Henry as written and as acted especially in the “meddlesome priest” scene exhibits peak “omega in heat” behavior I’ve ever seen in a performance. I’ve long described omegaverse as something that I’m less personally interested in due to it feeling more of a “Catholic” set of kinks to me (Catholic as in, associated with pre-established symbols, language, and focused deeply on physical bodily transformative experiences rather than intellectual or abstracted ones). Henry is someone being wracked and transformed by his emotions, not just intellectually or emotionally, but physically. This fits in very appropriately, I feel, with the “yaoi misogyny” assumptions of the overall story as well as the ways in which he describes his defeatedness and physical weakness as being “like a woman” compared to Becket’s “strong, hot-blooded” nature. Is this hashtag problematic? Absolutely, which is why I made a point to mention the misogyny and overal shitbag interesting themes and characterizations earlier. But also let’s be REAL the patheticism of men defeated by their own strength of emotion is, extremely compelling.