1965 – A Thousand Clowns

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A Thousand Clowns – 1965

I didn’t particularly like this film.  It wasn’t a bad movie.  It wasn’t poorly made.  It wasn’t slow or boring.  The acting was just fine.  So what was it that turned me off?  It was the general message that the film was trying to portray, which was that being an irresponsible person is a goal everyone should have, and that being a responsible person is nothing more than a necessary evil.

I know that I’m oversimplifying the message, but I think that’s what it boils down to.  The movie glorified having the attitude that people who work hard for a living are soulless conformists who have lost touch with their inner child.  Jason Robards played the film’s lead, Murray Burns, guardian to his young nephew, Nick, played by Barry Gordon.  One of the first things he says, when the boy asks him to get a job, is “Nick, in a moment you’re going to see a horrible thing.  People going to work.”

We are then treated to the opening credits which is made up of 2 and a half minutes of images of large crowds of people walking the streets of New York as they hurry to get to their jobs while loud marching band music that belongs in a three-ring circus beats you over the head.  I was very nearly offended.  I’m a responsible, hard-working adult, and I was just told that I am a fool for being so.

The film’s drama comes when the Child Welfare Board begins to question Murray’s ability to be a fit parent for young Nick.  I have to say, I was on their side, and I don’t think I was supposed to be.  Murray had been unemployed for the past 5 months, living on unemployment insurance, all because he grew fed up with the banality of working at a job he hated, and quit.  Never-mind that if you quit your job, you are not eligible for unemployment insurance.  And never-mind that unemployment insurance only last for a certain amount of time.  Once it runs out, you get nothing.

Anyway, the Board sends two representatives to investigate the situation.  Albert Amundson and Sandra Markowitz, played by William Daniels and Barbara Harris, arrive and attempt to question Murray.  He ignores anything they have to say, talks over them, and changes the subject as often as he can.  The meeting would have been completely unproductive except that Sandra is utterly unfit to be working for the Child Welfare Board, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

And for that matter, this is a good place to mention how unimpressed I was with Barbara Harris’ performance.  She had what I’d like to call the ‘please don’t hurt me’ look.  It was a look that stayed with her throughout the entire movie.  She always looked like she was on the verge of tears, afraid that her costars were going to start strangling her.  Even when her character was supposed to be happy, she had the perpetual countenance of a victim.

The film’s score was made up of more circus music.  The director made use of it in a unique, but obnoxious way that was very jarring.  It was done on purpose, I’m sure, but I found it upsetting.  A lot of the humor used the set-up/punchline format.  As soon as a punchline was delivered, the blaring horns and snare-drums would startle me and then abruptly stop as the set-up for the next joke started.

To make a long story short, Sandra blows off her job and gets fired, stays with Murray, and the two instantly fall in love, at which I had to roll my eyes.  When Murray realizes that Nick will be taken away from him, he resolves to get a job.  He goes to his brother Arnold, brilliantly played by Martin Balsam, who lines up several interviews for him, but the thought of becoming a mindless laborer is so abhorrent to him that he walks out on every one of them.

The “tragic” end of the movie shows Murray taking back his old job as a joke writer for a children’s television show.  He sells his soul to the devil and it is implied that both Nick, who ultimately loves him, and Sandra, who has fallen in love with his child-like spirit, will now be living with him.

But I’ll be honest.  If it were not for Balsam’s character saying that by responsibly conforming to the demands of society, he has become the “best possible Albert Burns,” the movie would have had very few redeeming qualities.

1965 – Ship of Fools

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Ship of Fools – 1965

This was a very well put together slice-of-life film.  As such, there wasn’t much real plot, but there were a cast of characters, each of whom had his or her own interesting story to tell.  The film had a few stars with beg enough names, the biggest being Vivian Leigh, who turned in an exceptional performance.  But other actors like Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, and Oskar Werner showed some equally praiseworthy talents.

The premise of the movie was about a group of passengers on a German cruise ship as it sailed from Veracruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven Germany in 1933.  The main characters are all in first class, but the ship picks up 600 displaced workers in steerage who are being deported from Cuba to Spain, along with a woman who is being taken to a German prison.  Even the ship’s crew have their own stories, each of which are interesting in their own right.

I really liked the way each of the stories were told.  They weren’t lined up and displayed like animals in a zoo.  They were told all at the same time as the various characters interacted with each other.  This had the wonderful effect of making sure that no story really took dominance over any other, and I think the director, Stanley Kramer, did a fantastic job of giving each of them pretty equal screen time.

In her final screen appearance, Vivian Leigh played Mrs. Treadwell, a wealthy, bitter alcoholic who is on a mission to recapture her lost youth.  Lee Marvin played Bill Tenny, an ex-baseball player who is disappointed that his career never really took off.  David and Jenny are a young couple played by George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley.  They are very much in love with each other, but have very different views about what roles they should play in their relationship.  Michael Dunn plays Carl Glocken, a dwarf whose parents give him money to travel because they are embarrassed by him and want him to be away from them.  Heinz Ruhmann played Julius Lowenthall, a German, Jewish salesman who was a good man, though he seemed oblivious to the impending doom of the imminent rise of the Nazi party.

All the actors did a fine job and created some pretty unique personalities.  None of them were simple stereotypes.  They each had their good points and bad, making them realistic and believable.  Even Jose Ferrer, playing the part of Seigfried Reiber, did a great job, though he played the despicable character of a German businessman who was clearly a Nazi at heart.

But there was one story that caught my attention more than the others, not because the script favored them, but because the actors playing them did such an incredible job.  Werner played the ship’s doctor, Wilhelm Schumann, a man who is disillusioned with the banality of life and is searching for something to make him feel alive.  Signoret played La Condesa, a drug addict who is being transported to a German prison.  The two meet and a wonderful romance begins.  Their stories, as they intertwined, were beautiful and tragic.  They were dramatic without being schmaltzy, and the two actors turned in some extremely powerful performances.

But there were two things about the film that I didn’t care for.  One was the music.  The score didn’t always seem to fit the movie.  It was like it was trying too hard to be dramatic, and it just made it seem unnecessarily jarring and incongruous.  At times, the music seemed like it belonged in an action film or a suspense thriller.  But this was a drama.  The loud, and in-your-face orchestra hits as the passengers were departing the ship at the end made no sense, and took me out of the moment.

The other thing was the fact that twice in the film, the fourth wall was broken.  Once at the beginning and once at the end, the character of Glocken turned to the camera and spoke directly to the audience, saying inane things that explained that everyone in life is a fool in his own way.  Watch the movie and maybe you’ll see yourself.  It felt awkward and separated me from the drama.

But all-in-all, I would say that I liked the movie.  The drama was deep and insightful into the human condition.  The actors all did a superb job and I actually did see myself in more than one of the characters.  Good job everybody!

1965 – Darling

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Darling – 1965

I’m honestly having trouble figuring this movie out.  What was the point?  What was its message?  What theme was it trying to explore or what story was it trying to tell?  It isn’t clearly apparent.  But I think I have figured it out.  It was trying to encapsulate the essence of the 1960s through the character of Diana Scott, a young British girl played by Julie Christie.  She is mod and hip.  She is completely ruled by her emotions and her flights of fancy.  She tries new things, whatever catcher her attention, and then gets bored with them easily, always looking for what is around the next corner.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in her choices of lovers.  She moves from one man to another in fits of restlessness, regardless of the consequences.  The concept of free love was obvious and I have to give this film credit for being daring in its portrayal of both women and homosexuals as overtly sexual beings.  This is the first Best Picture nominee that has done so in a serious and realistic way.

The character of Diana Scott is an actress who meets many men in her profession.  Some of them are ordinary, but some of them are powerful.  She starts off as an innocent and faithful young wife of a man who she considers to be an immature child.  But as she begins to explore her own sexuality, she finds herself attracted to men who have position and status.  She is a serial social climber.

While still married, she starts an affair with Robert Gold, played by Dirk Bogarde, a journalist.  He teaches her about real love, though she is too immature to realize its significance.  She is a jealous lover, though she claims to be anything but.  Eventually she becomes bored with him and moves on to Miles Brand, played by Laurence Harvey, a powerful advertising executive.  Unfortunately, Miles is only able to love himself, but he does introduce Diana to sexual liberation.  He takes her to live sex shows and orgies, which she finds vaguely disgusting, but she proves that she can keep up with the experience.  Robert learns of her unfaithfulness and leaves her.

Each lover strips away more and more of her innocence by introducing her to new ideas and experiences.  Eventually, she climbs to the top of the social ladder.  She lands an Italian prince named Cesar, played by Jose Luis de Vilallonga who adores her and she becomes a princess.  But as I think about it, I find that in the end, she doesn’t like where she ends up.  She discovers that the relationship she truly wants is the one in which there was real love.  She wants Robert.

The film also touched on issues of social classes, which has always been incredibly important to the British.  It is there, but it is overshadowed by the more prominent story of Diana and her rise to the top.  There were scenes and images that were shown in passing that displayed the hypocrisy and decadence of the upper class, but they didn’t seem to have that much significance to Diana and her story, which was, after all, the main story.

Christie did a good enough job.  She certainly had the right look for the role.  She was beautiful, and she is a competent actress.  But something I can’t exactly put my finger on gives me pause.  Sure, she won the Academy award for Best Actress for her performance, but I can’t help thinking that something was missing.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out what it was.

I also thought that Dirk Bogarde did a fantastic job as the tragic character of Robert.  His character was mistreated and emotionally thrashed, sad, lonely, jealous, angry, and everything in between, and Bogarde made it all look believable.  He was particularly good at the end when he drives Diana to the airport to callously send her back to her gilded but unhappy cage in Italy.

And one last thing I’d like to mention is that I thought the film would have been so much better in color.  One of the things that the film tried so hard to display was the trendy fashions of the 60s.  The 60s was a time of innovation and experimentation in fashion and bright colors were an important part of that.  That wonderful visual aspect was completely lost because the movie was filmed in black and white.

1965 – Doctor Zhivago

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Doctor Zhivago – 1965

This was a true epic.  It was a star-crossed romance set against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War that took place between 1917 and 1922.  It starred Omar Sharif, Julie Christi, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Geraldine Chaplin, and Tom Courtenay.  The cinematography and the directing were top-notch, and the score was memorable.  The acting was a little understated, but not enough to make it unbelievable.  The sets and costumes were superb, and the plot was grand and exciting.

Sharif played the title character, Doctor Yuri Zhivago, a young medical student engaged to Tonya, played by Chaplin.  Christi played Lara, a young lady from a wealthy family who is the mistress of a well-connected older gentleman, played by Steiger.  At the same time, Lara is engaged to Pasha, a young man with idealistic ideas of political reform.

The film actually starts out in the early 50s with Guiness playing a KGB agent searching for the long lost daughter of the famous Russian poet, Yuri Zhivago.  He believes he has found her and questions the girl, played by Rita Tushingham, about her past.  She knows very little and so he tells her the story of who he believes to be her parents.  Then the heart of the film plays out in flashback, though from beginning to end, almost no reference is made to that fact.  By the end of the movie, I nearly forgot that we needed to return to the 50s.

The plot follows all of the lead characters between the years of 1913 and 1936 or so, when Yuri dies of a heart attack.  The characters float in and out of each other’s lives, seemingly by coincidence.  Each time they meet, their relationships differ slightly with the passing years.  Sometimes characters are friends while other times they are lovers or enemies.  But the one thing that remains constant is the romance between Lara and Yuri.  The two cannot always act out their love, but it is always there, relentlessly pulling at their hearts.

And that’s about it.  The film, being a product of Hollywood, concentrated most of its attention on the romance, but I, and many critics of the time, would have liked it a little more if greater significance had been given to the revolution.  It was a time of great upheaval in Russia, a time of enormous political turmoil.  Many people died in the Civil War, the events of which had profound and far-reaching consequences for the entire world.

I understand that the film was about the romance and not the war, but maybe the romance could have been more poignant if the reasons behind the war had been more prominent.  Maybe.  I’m not saying that I didn’t like the movie.  I did.  But the original novel upon which the film was based gave the war a bigger role to play, which in turn gave the characters more solid motivations.

Sharif and Christi played their parts well, though at times they seemed a little dispassionate, even in their romance.  But it was really Steiger and Courtenay that stood out to me as the better actors.  True, their parts were smaller, but they both brought a higher level of skill to their performances.  Steiger, in particular did a fantastic job.  He was, without a doubt, a villain, but in the second half of the film, he goes out of his way to save Yuri and Lara’s lives.  Steiger was able to retain the character’s arrogance even as he tried to do something good in a selfish attempt to achieve a kind of personal atonement for having raped Lara earlier in the film.

And as an interesting note, I learned that of all places, Russia banned not only the film, but also Boris Pasternak’s book upon which it was based.  To quote Wikipedia: “A great lyric poet, Pasternak was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. While the citation noted his poetry, it was understood that the prize was mainly for Doctor Zhivago, which the Soviet government saw as an anti-Soviet work, thus interpreting the award of the Nobel Prize as a gesture hostile to the Soviet Union. A target of the Soviet government’s fervent campaign to label him a traitor, Pasternak felt compelled to refuse the Prize. The situation became an international cause célèbre and made Pasternak a Cold War symbol of resistance to Soviet communism.”

1964 – Zorba the Greek

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Zorba the Greek – 1964

Zorba was an interesting character.  He seemed to epitomize the general feel of the entire film, which was that sometimes life is up and sometimes it is down.  Either way, it should be lived to the fullest.  It is a great philosophy, but part of its challenge is being happy, even in the face of tragedy.

As I watched the film, the first thing that struck me was that it reminded me very much of the 1963 Best Picture nominee, America, America.  It seemed to have a number of clear similarities in the cinematography, directing, and even the script.  They both offered the viewer a look into the culture of the Greek people, both touching on the animosity between the Greeks and the Turks.

Anthony Quinn played the title role of Alexis Zorba.  He is a jack of all trades with a long and hard history.  But he has one peculiarity that is a significant part of the plot.  There have been a few times in his life, during periods of great depression or great joy, when he dances.  He dances until he drops from exhaustion as a way to purge emotions that are too intense to bear.

But Zorba is not the protagonist.  The film is really about a young Englishman he meets who happens to own a mine in Crete.  His name is Basil, and he is played by Alan Bates.  He meets Zorba as he is going to his mine to make an attempt at turning it into a working enterprise.  Zorba, who has had mining experience, offers to become his foreman.

Basil is a man who has a lot of trouble showing his emotions, setting him up as a good contrast to Zorba, who wears his emotions on his sleeve.  Their relationship is an odd one.  They start out as strangers, and become employer and employee, and finally friends.  Along the way, they each experience love in their own ways, and in the end, Basil asks Zorba to teach him to dance, or to metaphorically embrace life.

The story is really Basil’s and follows the deep and profound life-lessons he learns from Zorba.  And as far as I can tell, the lessons seem to have a specific kind of philosophy.  Take life as it comes and appreciate your fortunes, both good and bad.  Go where the wind blows you and know that wherever you land is exactly where you are meant to be.  And don’t put too much stock in what you read in books.  Books can tell you about the world, but you will never know the world until you experience it for yourself.

Now, I have to mention an aspect of the plot that I found uncomfortable.  Living in the village is a beautiful widow, played by Irene Papas.  A young boy is in love with her, but she constantly rejects his advances.  One evening, the local boy tries to get her attention and fails.  That same night, Basil is finally seen going to her bed.  But here is where it got weird.  The young boy is told of the widow’s acceptance of a lover and so he drowns himself. The next day, the boy’s father, along with the entire town, stones her in the streets.  Basil is too afraid to save her so he sends for Zorba.  Zorba comes to rescue her, but the dead boy’s father slits the widow’s throat.  Everybody seems to be OK with the murder.  Never-mind the fact that the widow never pretended to accept the boy’s affections, and she was not responsible for his suicide.  I didn’t understand why everyone wanted her dead.

Another strange part of the story had to do with the character of Madam Hortense, played by Lila Kedrova.  She is an older foreign woman who owns the local hotel.  She has money and falls for Zorba.  He is eventually tricked into marrying her, but soon after the wedding she falls ill and dies.  The instant she is dead, the evil villagers fall upon her house like vultures and steal her every possession, leaving Zorba with nothing more than a parrot.

But all is well.  Basil learns to dance away his pain, both at losing his lover and possibly being the cause of her death.  Zorba teaches him to dance away the loss of all his money and business ventures.  He dances until he is happy and is able to leave Greece.  It was a strange ending, but appropriate enough, I guess.  After all, when you have lost everything, what else can you do but embrace life and try to be happy?

1964 – Mary Poppins

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Mary Poppins – 1964

This is a film that I have seen many times.  I know the songs, and I know the scenes.  I know the actors, the costumes, the special effects, and the plot.  I know which parts I like and which parts I don’t.  The challenge with this review will be deciding what to leave out.  Incidentally, the only thing I wish the movie would have left out was the song I Love To Laugh.  I always have to roll my eyes during that scene.  It is like uncomfortable, forced merriment, a standard Disney trait.

The film’s big star was Julie Andrews, playing the magical nanny, Mary Poppins.  Opposite her is Dick Van Dyke, playing a common dustman named Bert.  The story is centered on the Banks family.  George and Winifred Banks, played by David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns, are the parents of Jane and Michael Banks, played by child actors Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber.  George is a jerk and a dismally unfeeling father.  Winifred is a bubble-headed and subservient mother and wife.  The children are undisciplined and stubborn with a penchant for running away from home.

The family is in a perpetual state of dysfunction.  That is… until Mary Poppins arrives.  Through the use of love, kindness, and a healthy dose of magic, she teaches the children to behave, and more importantly, she teaches the parents to pay attention to and love their kids.  She is helped by Bert, a street-wise cockney who is full of sage advice.

And that’s the bare bones of the plot.  The story is about the healing of the Banks family, but the fun is in the adventures the children have while learning their lessons about love, social awareness, and responsibility.  The drama comes when George learns his lessons.  Winifred doesn’t seem to learn much, as her character remains the same from beginning to end.

It is a sweet movie that is very obviously geared toward children.  But every time I watch it, I can’t help but wonder about the relationship between Mary and Bert.  They certainly have some kind of history.  They seem to imply that the story they are playing out is one that has been lived through before.  Bert is perfectly comfortable with Mary and her magical ways.  The two speak to each other as old friends.  But I want to know their history.

So I did a little research.  Mary Poppins is based on a series of 8 children’s books written by P. L. Travers.  In the books, Mary is much stricter and most of the time she is decidedly cross.  But everyone loves her anyway because of her magic.  And while I’m on the subject, I’d also like to know more about the nature of her magic.  When viewed with a critical eye, she seems to be some sort of witch, almost like she belongs in the Harry Potter universe.  She shows evidence of being telekinetic, telepathic, and empathic.  She can converse with animals.  And she carries magical objects like a carpet bag that holds more than it should be able to, or an umbrella handle that seems to be a sentient creature.

Her relationship with Bert seems to be one of deep platonic fondness.  The character of Uncle Albert, played by Ed Wynn, who floats up to the ceiling whenever he laughs too much, is supposed to be Mary’s uncle.  Clearly magic runs in their family.  Bert, however, is just a friend of the family, and is specifically shown to have no magical powers.

Anyway, aside from all that, most of the film is just frothy and fun.  The memorable songs were written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.  Great songs like A Spoonful of Sugar, Jolly Holiday, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Step in Time, and Let’s go Fly a Kite are joyous and easy to sing along with.  But the film was also smart by exploring a very serious and dramatic side.  Other great songs like Stay Awake, Feed the Birds, and Chim Chim Cher-ee, have an almost melancholy quality that can be quite touching, the last one being about finding beauty in unexpected people and places.

The costumes, especially Mary’s, were beautiful and fanciful.  I Particular liked the dresses she wore in the Jolly Holiday sequence and the rooftop sequence.  The sets were wonderful and playful.  Some of the sets were even animated.  The entire Jolly Holiday section took place in a cartoon world, complete with singing barnyard animals and dancing penguins.  The special effects were beautifully done, and pretty innovative for their time.

And lastly, I have to give a special shout-out to the film’s star, Julie Andrews.  Not only did she look beautiful, but she had a golden voice that was absolutely flawless.  She proved that she could dance as well as sing, and made it all look and sound effortless.  Just like the character of Mary Poppins, Andrews was practically perfect in every way.  Great performance, Julie!

1964 – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – 1964

First and foremost, this film was a political satire black comedy, directed by Stanley Kubrick.  But beneath that veneer, it bordered on simple farce.  It targets the subject of the Cold War, which was a current and relevant issue in the 1960s.  However, I feel that, though there were plenty of valid things about the government and the military that were being made fun of, many of the jokes have lost their significance in the modern era.  In 1964 it all would have been quite topical, but today, much of that quality has been lost.

The film starred Peter Sellers in 3 different and very distinct roles.  He played a British RAF exchange officer, Captain Mandrake.  He also played the President of the United States, Merkin Muffley.  And finally, he played the film’s title role, Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair-bound nuclear war expert and former Nazi.  Then, there were three other significant characters in the film.  Sterling Hayden played Brigadier General Jack Ripper.  George C. Scott played General Buck Turgidson.  And last, but not least, Slim Pickens played Major T. J. Kong.

In order to get to the point of the movie’s full title, I’ll give as brief a synopsis of the movie as I can.  The U.S. has a great many bombers positioned around the Russian border, waiting for bombing codes from their superiors.  General Ripper is the only man who has the codes to order the bombers to attack their targets with a devastating barrage of H-bombs.  He is also the only man with the proper codes to recall them.  Ripper goes crazy and orders an unprovoked, all-out attack on the “Ruskies”.  Kong is one of the pilots who receives the code for the attack.

In the war-room at the Pentagon, President Muffley calls in his entire staff of Military advisors, including Turgidson and Strangelove, to deal with the situation.  Turgidson is excited by the prospect of war, as are all evil military men, though Mufley does everything he can to avert mutually assured destruction.  The Russian Ambassador, Alexei de Sadeski, Played by Peter Bull, informs him that if the U.S. drops any bombs on Russia, an automatic and unstoppable device will set off a doomsday machine which will irradiate the surface of the earth, destroying all life for the next hundred years.

After Ripper commits suicide, Captain Mandrake figures out the recall code and recalls all the bombers.  But it is all for nothing.  Kong’s communication equipment has been damaged, and he does not receive the recall code.  He proceeds to bomb his target, ensuring a world-wide nuclear holocaust.

Knowing that the world is now doomed, Dr. Strangelove deduces that humanity’s only hope is to get as many people as possible to take up residence in deep mine-shafts, away from the radiation, for the next hundred years.  In order to ensure sufficient breeding stock to repopulate the earth, there would have to be ten women for every man, each of whom would spend the remainder of his days making love to as many women as possible.  Thus: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Yes, it is a silly farce, and to be sure, there were some very funny moments.  Seller’s portrayal of the ex-Nazi, Strangelove, was particularly hilarious, especially when his crippled right arm would randomly spring up into a Nazi “sieg heil!” salute.  He would also slip and call the U.S. President “Mein Führer.”  But for my tastes, many of the jokes just weren’t all that funny.  The humor was there, but it was so dry that I found myself not laughing.

One of the biggest things being satirized was the extreme paranoia of military leaders who were dealing with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.  Another was the stupidity and ineffectualness of the leaders of the Russian and U.S. governments.  But this was 1964, and many people believed in the reality of those things.  And the very 60s concept of free love did not escape my notice.

But just because I didn’t find the political humor very funny, doesn’t mean the rest of the world didn’t.  In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted it the 24th greatest comedic film of all time.  It is also listed as number 26 on Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.  It has been described as “arguably the best political satire of the century.”  Sure, it was a smarter film than Airplane!, but I’ll never stop laughing with that one.

1964 – Becket

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Becket – 1964

I remember seeing a stage production of Becket when I was in high school, and I recall enjoying it very much.  I have, until today, not remembered very clearly what it was really about and why I liked it so much.  That being said, I had high expectations for this movie.  I’m very happy to report that I have not been disappointed.  Becket is a wonderful story of King Henry II and his friend, Becket.

I’ll reiterate: The story is about King Henry II.  Though the film’s title names the King’s friend, the main protagonist is the King.  Peter O’Toole plays King Henry, a man who both starts and ends the drama of the plot.  Henry is portrayed as a child, both mentally and emotionally.  He is the monarch of all England, but wants to spend all his time drinking and whoring.  His character arch and his motives are what ultimately drive the plot forward.

Thomas Becket, played by Richard Burton, starts out as his drinking buddy and wing man.  The only problem with the arrangement is that Becket is a Saxon.  He is only the King’s man-servant because Henry is a Norman whose ancestors conquered the Saxons.  Yes, Becket is Henry’s friend, but only because Henry orders him to be so.  Becket plays his part because he thinks it is the best way for him to survive, but he secretly loathes the King.

Nowhere is this more evident than when Henry insensitively steals Becket’s lovely girlfriend Gwendolen, played by Sian Phillips, driving her to commit suicide.  Becket is only able to endure the King’s childish behavior by burying his conscience and ridding himself of all emotion.  But the King, oblivious to Becket’s true feelings, goes out of his way to bestow power and position on his friend, even going so far as to make Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury.  In fact, his professed love for Becket borders precariously on a homosexual love, and I wonder if that was intentional.

It has been a great and well-scripted story already, but here is where it gets interesting.  When one of the King’s men murders a Catholic priest, Becket takes his role seriously and demands the man’s arrest.  But an attack on a King’s man is an attack on the King, and King Henry has no intention of bowing to the Church.  Once his greatest friend, Becket has now become the King’s greatest enemy.  All this leads to a dramatic and bloody climax.

The scenes of drama were intense and the acting was superb.  O’Toole and Burton both played their parts splendidly.  I was quite impressed, thinking that the film was perfectly cast.  The sets and props were spot-on, making the whole thing very believable.  I was also impressed with the costumes, which, this being a period piece, could have so easily gone the bright and garish rout taken by other period films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe.  The colors were muted and natural.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention the music.  The film’s score was excellent.  Written by Laurence Rosenthall, the score was incredibly well-suited to the subject matter. It had a very modern sound that was based in a renaissance feel.  It made full use of a large orchestra to intensify the drama, often using very dark, disturbing, and even ominous sounds.  It was a great score that was beautifully written.

But before I finish this review, I have to make special mention of a few other actors who all played their parts wonderfully and added to the great realism of the film.  Sir John Gielgud played King Louis VII of France who sheltered Becket in his exile.  David Weston played Brother John, a monk who became Becket’s devout servant and friend within his position as Archbishop.  Pamela Brown played Henry’s hated and hateful wife, Queen Eleanor.

And finally, I have to mention the film’s lack of historical accuracy, only to say that in this case, I’m alright with what they did.  The author of the original play on which the film is based, Jean Anouilh, knew of what was inaccurate, but said that he was writing a drama, not a history.  The biggest falsehood was that Thomas Becket was actually a Norman.  But to leave that in would destroy most of the film’s character motivations and much of its drama.