The Movies I’ve Seen Recently, Arbitrarily Arranged Into A Narrative Sequence Emphasizing The Extent To Which They Each Deal With The Subject of How We Remember Stuff In The Past That Makes Us Feel Shitty About Ourselves, Part Three
Becket, via the netflix
It’s interesting to think about why anyone would care about Henry II and Thomas a Becket in 1964, even if it isn’t the sort of question that usually gets asked. After all, like any historical story, it’s — you know — history. And the story as it gets told in the movie (based on the Jean Anouilh play of the same name) isn’t even true; not only is there no record that Becket was a Saxon (one of the plot cruxes) but Anouilh supposedly dismissed that problem with a quote to the effect that he was leaving it that way because we might someday discover that he actually had been.
Anyway, it’s hard for me not to see the entire flick as one long political allegory for the end of European colonial rule. After all, while the bromance plot is the real heart of the movie,* the skeleton over which it’s draped is a story of a crumbling colonial rule: the Normans have complete military control over the Saxon majority, but their political control is weakening because their hearts aren’t in it (Henry), or their brains (the barons). And like every colonial apologist anywhere, Henry is quick to disclaim any particular love for his Norman ancestors — scorning and disowning the way they conquered and raped their way across England — while ruling the country and debauching Saxon peasant women with zest and jouissance. Things get complicated because he becomes dependant on a Saxon — Thomas — to do his thinking for him, and even as Thomas rules his own people in service of their conquerors, Henry becomes — in a nicely Hegelian way — dependent on his servant. Conflict, fighting, etc, etc. It’s a great movie, and Peter O’Toole is as awesome as always. But it’s not about Normans and Saxons. It’s about The Colonies, and about the what was happening in the love/hate colonialist mind when they decided they want to leave.
* In brief, Henry loves Thomas, but he can never trust that Thomas loves him back, so he must keep testing him and forcing him to choose until Thomas finally chooses virtue, and becomes Henry’s enemy. It’s sort of Point Break in reverse and in slightly different period costume.