Film and stage legend Peter O’Toole died December 14, 2013, at age 81. Best known for his epic Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole is also remembered for his dramatization of King Henry II in Becket (1964), for which he received one of his eight Academy Award nominations. What makes Becket particularly special is the dynamic, intense interaction of two larger-than-life Hollywood personalities, with Richard Burton arguably giving one of his best performances in the title role.
Becket concerns the complicated relationship between King Henry and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is also the King’s best friend. Henry nominates Thomas Becket for England’s highest ecclesiastical position because he believes Thomas will always side with the King in disputes between the increasingly autocratic power of the State and the independence of the Church. What Henry cannot foresee is that Becket will take his ordination seriously and use his office to defend the legal rights of the Church and promote the civil rights of minorities. Like Sir Thomas More centuries later (whose life and fate resemble Thomas Becket’s), Becket becomes “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
American viewers today may experience Becket primarily as a story about the separation of Church and State in a context far removed from the modern world. Yet, in a broader and subtler sense, the film strongly highlights the reasons why we need separation of powers among branches of government.
The power struggle between Henry and Becket takes place in the 12th century, before the adoption of the Magna Carta. At that time, there were few checks on the power of the monarch, and tensions between the King and the barons ran deep. While the King needed a quorum of nobles and knights to support his decisions, few ambitious people dared to take the losing side. The only sector of society which the King could not completely influence was the Church. With its legal structure, rights of “sanctuary” (where accused persons could take refuge while seeking to prove their innocence), and authority figures capable of negotiating with heads of state on behalf of minorities, the Church of the Middle Ages was the only consistent counterbalance to the monarch.
The adoption of the Magna Carta in 1215 was an important milestone in the evolution of English constitutional law. It limited the power of the monarch, guaranteed various rights and liberties to “freemen,” and set the stage for the eventual development of modern parliamentary government in the English-speaking world. When the U.S. Constitution was adopted more than 550 years later, the Founding Fathers recognized the crucial importance of checks and balances. No one person or group of people should be allowed to concentrate all the powers of law, taxation, administration of justice, and war (not to mention religion) in their own hands. The framers of the Constitution created three distinct branches of government so that no one could become an autocrat like Henry, and the U.S. government would not devolve into a brawl among factions.
The Saxon Thomas Becket’s courage in standing up to a Norman King of England, and his tragic betrayal, have been so deeply imprinted upon the English imagination that the events of the night of December 29, 1170 have been memorialized famously from Chaucer, to T.S. Eliot, to O’Toole and Burton’s Becket. If you are looking for an unusual film for Christmas week, look no further than Becket, and watch it in honor of valor and freedom on December 29.
Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.
(A version of this article was originally published December 17, 2013.)