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T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1951)

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Here’s yet another film that you can’t see easily.

This is a really odd case; a book on the making of this film of T.S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral is fairly readily available on Amazon, but the film itself, well, that’s another matter. There appears to be a 35mm copy of the film available in the archives of the British Film Institute, and from what one can discern from the book on the production of the film — which includes numerous production shots and a great deal of fascinating detail on the shoot — it seems that it might be a very interesting project indeed.

For the most part, the film consists of static shots with long takes, something like the films of Jean-Marie Straub, but then again, I haven’t seen it, so I might be mistaken. Shot in 1951 and released in England in that year, Murder in the Cathedral didn’t cross the ocean to the United States until 1952, where the ever-myopic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for one, didn’t like the film — which makes me all the more interested in seeing it.

One viewer commented that “[the film] is an experimental transposition of the Eliot play to the screen and [. . .] deals more with sound and meaning than it does film movement, i.e., static shots with voice overs. It is the story of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, and his struggles against temptation and personal vanity prior to his murder in the great Cathedral.” Eliot’s voice is heard in the film as that of the Fourth Tempter; I’ve always loved Eliot’s work, and I have to wonder why on earth the film isn’t available on DVD.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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