As I write, “I’ve always had a curious affection for George Hoellering’s 1951 film adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot composed it as a stage play in 1935, with the first performance taking place on June 15th that year in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral, in every way an appropriate location for the production. As is well known, Eliot’s play deals with the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by four knights in 1170 at the Canterbury Cathedral. This crime was committed at the behest of King Henry II, who was seeking both to establish his own authority on a higher scale and to break ties with the Papacy in Rome. Eliot’s play uses a great deal of material written by one Edward Grim, who saw the actual assassination of Becket in person, and was even wounded during the attack.
The first production at Canterbury Cathedral featured actor Robert Speaight as Becket, which then was transferred to London’s Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill Gate for a modest run, with Speaight reprising his leading role. As many have noted, the main theme of Eliot’s play is the power of resistance to authority that one believes to be either corrupt or fraudulent. Since Eliot wrote the work in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, there can be little doubt that he had the usurping forces of fascism in mind as he composed Murder in the Cathedral. It’s a superb accomplishment as a text, and requires a minimum of dramatic translation for the stage: it is essentially performed as a series of tableaux, and so eloquent is Eliot’s text that it needs little more in the way of staging or blocking.
Subsequent stage productions included Robert Donat’s turn as Becket in an Old Vic production directed by Robert Helpmann in 1953; a 1971 New York stage version with Dark Shadows alumnus Jonathan Frid in the title role; a Royal Shakespeare Company version in 1972 starring Hammer Films regular Richard Pasco as Becket; and most recently in 2014 at St. Bartholomew-the-Great Church in London, testifying to the continual appeal of Eliot’s work. Murder in the Cathedral also served as source material for one of the very first experimental television broadcasts: the 1936 BBC presentation of the play directed by George More O’Ferrall, which according to Kenneth Baily (who witnessed the transmission on television) included ‘the earliest recollection I have of a really inspired use of the close-up in television drama.’
But there the matter of a visual translation of Eliot’s work rested, until George Hoellering stepped in. He was an Austro-Hungarian filmmaker and entrepreneur who had fled the continent in 1936 to escape the Nazi onslaught, with only a handful of films to his credit. Hoellering brought Murder in the Cathedral to the screen in what was clearly a ‘passion project,’ with Eliot’s full help and participation. Hoellering’s previous films included the 1936 movie Life on the Hortobagy (a slightly fictionalized feature documentary centering on the everyday life of Hungarian peasants) and the 1944 British-made shorts Tyre Economy (of which the title says all) and Message from Canterbury (essentially an ode to Canterbury Cathedral, centering on a sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. William Temple).
What resulted was the product of a collaboration between one of the 20th century’s most gifted and exacting poets and a filmmaker intent on creating a feature film based on Eliot’s work, which had moved him deeply since his youth. The most conspicuous – even conscious – aspect of Hollering’s film of Eliot’s play is its theatricality, coupled with an austere visual sensibility that prefigures the dark landscapes of such later films as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1943), or harkens back to Carl Th. Dreyer’s equally severe Day of Wrath (1943). For many years, Murder in the Cathedral has been out of circulation – even as a 1952 book by Eliot and Hoellering on the making of the film, replete with numerous stills, remained tantalisingly in print – but now, in a newly restored DVD and Blu-ray combination release from the BFI - we have a chance once again to see Murder in the Cathedral for ourselves.”