The Film of Murder in the Cathedral

On My Bookshelf for National Poetry Month I find a book on a film of a play by a poet, the verse drama Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot. It is a story of faith, conscience, power, and murder. 

I first saw this film decades ago when I was a student. Of all the films one sees in a lifetime only a few leave indelible images in the memory. I think of the first appearance of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. And just as powerful, the chorus of women in Murder in the Cathedral who kneel in prayer and intone the sonorous words:

Since golden October declined into sombre November
And the apples were gathered and stored, and the land
became brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud,
The New Year waits, breathes, waits, whispers in darkness…

Now I fear disturbance of the quiet seasons:
Winter shall come bringing death from the sea,
Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors,
Root and shoot shall eat our eyes and our ears,
Disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams
And the poor shall wait for another decaying October..

Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait.

It is easy to discern the voice of the poet who wrote “April is the cruelest month,” the famous first line of The Waste Land. The chorus chant of the sufferings of the poor and set a tone of anguish and foreboding for the event to come.

The chorus – scene from the film

In Murder in the Cathedral Eliot tells the story of December 1170 when Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, returned to England from seven years of exile in France. His exile followed a power struggle with his former close friend King Henry II. Becket rose to power as Henry’s Chancellor, but when Henry appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury he angered the King by resigning the Chancellorship and taking his religious office far more seriously than Henry anticipated. Becket asserted the primacy of Church authority over the State, refusing to allow Henry to conduct trials of miscreant clergy in state courts. From exile Becket continued to provoke Henry by excommunicating bishops who cooperated with the king and conducting a diplomatic campaign to force Henry to accept his authority. In 1170 Pope Alexander III brokered a deal for Becket to return to England. The murder followed just weeks later. Whether Henry actually spoke the precise words: “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” is disputed, but certainly the four knights who rode to Canterbury and slaughtered Becket believed they were acting on Henry’s orders. After Becket’s death stories of miracles spread quickly and the Pope declared him a saint in 1173. Canterbury became a site of pilgrimage, as we see in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

T. S. Eliot

In 1934 George Bell, Dean of Canterbury, invited Eliot to write a play for the Canterbury Church Festival. Eliot was drawn to the story of Becket as an opportunity to explore the themes of individual conscience and sacrifice for the Christian faith. This was a time when Eliot’s work evolved from the nihilism of his Modernist classics to religious and spiritual themes. In 1927 he became a British citizen and converted from American Unitarianism to Anglo-Catholicism, a high church movement within Anglicanism. The conversion shocked his literary friends. Virginia Woolf wrote, rather nastily:

Poor dear Tom Eliot may be called dead to us all from this day forward… there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.

Another change was that Eliot finally extricated himself from his difficult marriage to the mentally ill Vivienne. He formally separated from her in 1933 though they never divorced. The heartbroken Vivienne was committed to an asylum by her brother and died there in 1947, never having been visited by her husband. In perhaps the most devastating retrospective on a marriage ever made, Eliot described the mindset of The Waste Land as reflecting his relationship with his wife. His life was now calmer and he could turn to spiritual matters. He believed England should return to Christian traditions and that this theme would win him a wider audience.

Eliot based the play on an eyewitness account by clerk Edward Grim, who was injured in the attack when he tried to defend Becket. He deliberately avoided a Shakespearean style, looking to earlier models like Greek drama, hence the chorus, and English medieval mystery plays like Everyman. In Act I Becket returns to Canterbury despite the chorus of poor women foretelling his death. He is confronted by three Tempters who try to urge him from his religious path with promises of worldly pleasures and power. Then a fourth Tempter offers him the glory that will come from martyrdom. But Becket rejects them all:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

In an Interlude Becket preaches a sermon on Christmas morning foretelling his own death and martyrdom, saying it is God’s plan. In Act II the knights enter the cathedral and confront Becket. They accuse him of betraying the King and insist he return to France. Becket refuses to abandon his parishioners for a second time. The knights draw their swords and brutally hack Becket to death at the altar. The play concludes with a procession to the crypt, the chorus chanting a dirge praising God and Becket’s martyrdom. They acknowledge their own sins, weakness, and fears:

Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man…
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern,
the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God…

…the sin of the world is upon our heads; …the blood of the martyrs and the
agony of the saints
Is upon our heads.
Lord, have mercy upon us
Blessed Thomas, pray for us.

The knights – scene from the film

The play was first performed on June 15th 1935 by candlelight in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral, and then for several months at the Mercury Theatre in London. A contemporary reviewer wrote:

Performed in a barn and before an audience of skeptics, it would still be a profound and beautiful thing.

Film poster designed by Peter Strausfeld

The Austro-Hungarian filmmaker George Hoelllering fled to England in 1936 to escape Nazi rule. At the outbreak of war he was interned with other foreign nationals on the Isle of Man. Here a friend gave him a copy of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. The play made a deep impression on him and he determined to film it once the war was over. He was lucky enough to gain Eliot’s support, and the film is the result of a close collaboration between the two men.

I found the book on the film by chance in a used book store many years after I had seen the film. With introductions by Eliot and Hoellering it presents the full text with stage directions, forty full page images from the film, and design sketches by Peter Pendry. I learned several things that explain what gives the film its austere beauty and sense of authenticity.

Father John Groser as Becket

Most of the cast were amateurs, ordinary looking people, which creates the illusion that you are watching real medieval people, not actors in costume. A Catholic priest, Father John Groser, played Becket. He was known as the rebel priest of the East End for his activism on behalf of tenants in Stepney. (I like to think that my father may have known him; my father was a Catholic, a teacher in the East End, and active in Labour politics at the time). Father Groser brought his own faith and commitment to the role; he didn’t have to act.

Hoellering went to extreme lengths to create authentic-looking costumes. The cloth was hand-woven and sewn using materials and methods of the twelfth century. Eliot, who first doubted the necessity of this, noted how the fabrics folded and draped quite differently from modern clothing. Hoellering was just as particular about the background for filming. The stark stone architecture of a Norman cathedral in the film is not in fact Canterbury Cathedral. Hoellering decided the cathedral had changed too much over the centuries and chose instead an abandoned church in St. John’s Wood, London.

To compensate for a lack of action in the play Hoellering made haunting use of close-ups of faces, architectural features, and religious images, with a few outdoor scenes, all with dark, threatening skies.

Eliot’s main contributions to the film were writing some brief new passages to better explain the action, and recording a reading of the entire poem as a guide to intonation and pacing for the actors. Hoellering was so impressed with the recording he decided to use Eliot’s voice for the Fourth Tempter, who never appears on screen. Eliot’s disembodied voice, described by one reviewer as “silky and sinuous,” is a chilling coda to the temptation scenes. View this excerpt from the film on YouTube:

The film was released in 1951 to immediate critical acclaim, winning the Grand Prix at the Venice film Festival in 1952. I saw it some time in the 1960’s and never forgot it. As soon as I purchased the book and learned more about the making of the film I wanted to see it again. But for many years it was unavailable. Just like the book I came across the DVD by chance at a rather obscure website called Loving the Classics. Even today if you look it up on Amazon only the European format DVD is available, so I had a lucky find.

And if you’re wondering, yes I did enjoy the film just as much on a second viewing. The spell cast by the austere black and white images and the incantatory verse has not diminished with the years.

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