DVD Review: Becket

MPI
Movie •••• Picture •••½ Sound •••½ Extras ••••
From the opening scenes of this 1964 classic film, dazzling sparks fly between on-screen rivals and off-screen pals Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. O'Toole plays King Henry II, ruler of 12-century England, and Burton is his chancellor, Thomas à Becket, whose loyalties falter when Henry attempts one cunning political maneuver too many.

Although original audiences may have gone to see Becket solely for the opportunity to watch the great actors strut their stuff, this transfer also offers a full-blown Technicolor tribute to the lost grandeur of the widescreen historical epic. The DVD release was delayed for years because the camera negative was lost, necessitating a slow, painstaking restoration from next-generation separation masters. The result is not quite as sharp as the very best transfers from films of this period, and resolution is also lacking in one or two exterior night scenes. But the vivid Technicolor hues more than compensate, lending an air of outsized theatricality to the palatial sets and lavish costumes of the royals.

Although the new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack surpasses the stereo original, the limitations of the sources are still apparent. Nevertheless, Laurence Rosenthal's church-music-inspired score, with its intermittent Gregorian chants, suits the story well and enjoys nice multichannel imaging here. Yet it's the booming voices of the film's two stars that are the true sound of Becket, and they come through in all their stage-trained glory.

Extras are plentiful and varied, especially for a single-disc release. Filmed interviews with Rosenthal and editor Anne V. Coates offer unusual perspectives on the production. But the vintage BBC interviews with Burton are the real surprise. One from 1967 delves into his acting technique (he's even asked to quote Hamlet), and 10 years later, he's aggressively confronted about his drinking (three bottles a day), smoking (60-to-100 cigarettes a day), and womanizing (too many to count). It's a far cry from today's world of publicists and spin, and Burton's frank answers are nothing short of astonishing. The commentary is devoted to a talk with O'Toole, and though he's saddled with an overly chatty interviewer, the actor shines through with his usual wit, charm, and perspective. [PG-13] English, Dolby Digital 5.1 and stereo; French and Spanish, Dolby Digital stereo; letterboxed (2.35:1); dual layer.

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