The Bootleg Files: Murder in the Cathedral

BOOTLEG FILES 590: “Murder in the Cathedral” (1951 British feature based on the T.S. Eliot drama).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public exhibition of this film.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Out of circulation in the U.S. since its original theatrical release.


The 12th century political battle between England’s King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket was the subject of two magnificent dramas: T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” and Jean Anouilh’s “Becket.” Today, most Americans are familiar with the Academy Award-winning 1964 film version of “Becket,” starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. Sadly, there is much less familiarity on this side of the Atlantic with the 1951 film adaptation of “Murder in the Cathedral.”

Bringing “Murder in the Cathedral” to the screen was the dream of George Hoellering, a Vienna-born filmmaker who first earned his reputation through experimental and nonfiction work. Hoellering escaped from Europe to England ahead of World War II, but due his place of birth he was briefly interned on the Isle of Man when the war began. During this time, he was given a copy of “Murder in the Cathedral” and became enamored by Eliot’s extraordinary command of the language and its theme of resistance to governmental oppression.

Hoellering tracked down Eliot and lobbied to obtain the film rights to “Murder in the Cathedral.” Eliot was initially uncertain that his work, which was conceived as a verse drama, could translate into the cinematic medium. But Hoellering’s insistence won the playwright over, and Eliot even agreed to record the full text in his own voice to help Hoellering capture the distinctive rhythms of this work.

Hoellering initially hoped to shoot on location at Canterbury Cathedral, the site of Becket’s assassination, but instead set up his cameras at a disused church in the St. John’s Wood section of London. In a rather curious decision, Hoellering opted to give the key role of Becket to a nonprofessional actor. His choice was a figure who was well known in England during this time: Father John Groser, a London priest who gained prominence for his socialist politics and public advocacy in favor of the poor. Although he had no formal training as an actor, Groser brought a majestic physical presence, a richly intellectual voice and an unquestioned degree of moral authority to the production. His Becket was a man of God who had little patience and no fear of the machinations from the royal power structure.

The resulting film turned out to be an odd endeavor with flashes of brilliance and passages of bumbling. Eliot adapted his drama, adding a new opening sequence that summarized the duel of wills between the king and the archbishop while reimagining the battle of wits between Becket and the Fourth Tempter by having the latter presented as an unseen voice rather than a flesh-and-blood entity. In a nice surprise, Eliot provided the voice performance for the tempter, offering a luxuriant phrasing that balanced brilliantly against Groser’s sparse yet wise rebuttals.

However, Eliot’s initial reservations on whether “Murder in the Cathedral” could be turned into a film appeared to be justified. Hoellering’s reverence for the material kept the film tied down to its theatrical roots. This is particularly obvious when a group of local peasant women function as a Greek chorus to the action – they speak in unison in a running commentary about what is transpiring, but the effect initially feels like a distracting artifice before becoming a numbing nuisance. Many of the scenes are also presented as if Hoellering was recording a dramatic recitation, with long and static shots where the actors speak at great length while keeping their physical movements to a minimal.

The real shame is that “Murder in the Cathedral” could have been a visually invigorating film. The challenge by the First Tempter to Becket is offered across a chess match in a sequence that predated – and, perhaps, inspired – the life-and-death chess game in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.” David Kosky’s black-and-white cinematography effectively captured the physical and emotional bleakness of 12th century England, and the mostly-unknown cast included impressive supporting performances by future stars including Niall McGinnis (who would also appear in “Becket”) as the herald and Leo McKern as one of the impatient knights who slay Becket.

The release of “Murder in the Cathedral” got off to an impressive start when the film won an award for production design at the 1951 Venice Film Festival while Hoellering received a nomination for the Golden Lion. That version ran 140 minutes, but for theatrical release the film was cut down to 114 minutes. The shorter version opened in London in 1951 to respectable business, and in 1952 it was imported to the U.S. for an art house release via Classic Pictures. And, then, the film all but vanished. It did not have an official home entertainment release until a 2015 DVD presentation by the British Film Institute, but that was only for U.K. audiences. As of this writing, “Murder in the Cathedral” was never made available in the U.S. market for either television or DVD release. Indeed, the film is so rare that you can’t even find it on YouTube – just a very brief excerpt.

However, there is a Canadian collector-to-collector service that includes “Murder in the Cathedral” in its product line-up. If you go this route, be forewarned: this is (at least) a second-generation dupe, and the transfer is more than a little splicey. This may not be the ideal way to enjoy “Murder in the Cathedral,” but in the absence of a proper U.S. release it is certainly better than nothing.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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