In between showing us fear in a handful of dust and musing about whimsical cats, T.S. Eliot wrote a verse-play called Murder in the Cathedral. Actually, he did rather a lot of other stuff too but we’re sticking to the matter at hand. The play was first performed in 1935 and told the story of the death and martyrdom of Thomas Becket (never call him "Thomas à Becket" unless you want to annoy your history tutor) in 1170 at the hands of four knights who may or may not have been carrying out the wishes of Henry II. As it happens, the play was turned into a film by George Hoellering in 1951 and was showered with awards at the 12th Venice International Film Festival. Actually, it only got one (best production design) but it’s gained quite a reputation as hardly anyone has seen it since. That’s always a good way of gaining a reputation. Now the BFI have brought us the Blu-ray, so is it worth the wait? Or was it best left in that enigmatic limbo of legend?
You probably know the story but just in case you don’t, Henry and Thomas were great chums and the king elevated Thomas to the position of Archbishop in 1162 with the probable hope that his mate would allow the Crown to rule the Church and not the other way round. Unfortunately, Thomas had the strange medieval notion that he was answerable only to God and proceeded to humiliate, undermine and generally annoy his old friend at every opportunity. Henry might have said "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" in front of some over-enthusiastic tooled-up knights and the rest is, quite literally, history.
It probably isn’t for us to comment on T.S. Eliot’s actual play - we just do movies - but it’s interesting stuff that was written at the time fascism was on the rise and that probably colours the message a bit. Becket is visited by four “tempters” (one of whom is the voice of T.S. Eliot) to get him to change his ways and, obviously, he doesn’t. But the unfortunate thing about the film is that Hoellering has just filmed the play as it would be seen on stage, unison chanting from the chorus included. Being a “verse-play” we might have expected “stagey” rather than naturalistic acting, but why film it on an obvious stage set? See Larry’s Henry V (1944) for the correct way to do this sort of thing. The Becket story may be a bit short on battle scenes but it’d have been nice to see the camera move every now and again as opposed to feeling like we’ve been stuck on a theatre seat for two hours. But as this is obviously deliberate, we’ll just judge it accordingly. There is at least one very good bit where one of the knights is justifying his actions and breaks the fourth wall by challenging us, the cinema audience, directly. It’s effective and thought-provoking but it’s practically the only time the medium of film is used with any flair.
So if you want to see one of T.S. Eliot’s more famous works and it’s not being done by your local provincials, this is worth a watch. Other than that, we just wished they’d remembered they were making a film.
Special Features: Alternative festival cut / Three short films from George Hoellering / Deleted scenes / Booklet
MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL (1951) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: GEORGE HOELLERING / SCREENPLAY: GEORGE HOELLERING, T.S. ELIOT / STARRING: JOHN GROSER, ALEXANDER GAUGE, DAVID WARD, GEORGE WOODBRIDGE, BASIL BURTON, T.S. ELIOT (VOICE), CLEMENT MCCALLIN, MICHAEL ALDRIDGE, LEO MCKERN, PAUL ROGERS, NIALL MACGINNIS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW