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. 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 fictionalised 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). Along with 1950’s Shapes and Forms (an experiment in light and shadow using sculptures in the collection of the Institute of Contemporary Arts), these are all apprentice work, created with varying degrees of success.

As The New York Times’ critic Frank Nugent wrote of Life on the Hortobagy,

The greater part of the picture is straight graphic description, some of it truly magnificent, of the enormous herds of horses and cattle which roam these desolate plains. For adornment there is a clumsy little story about the conflict of youth versus age, the modern versus the primitive, among the herders, acted entirely by the natives themselves. What little point it might give to the main theme, which is the ceaseless ebb and flow of all life, is dissipated by wooden acting and vague story-telling.

However, Graham Greene’s notice on the film during its initial run was far more favorable, writing in The Spectator that

Hortobagy, a film of the Hungarian plains, acted by peasants and shepherds, is one of the most satisfying films I have seen: it belongs to the order of Dovzhenko’s Earth without the taint of propaganda. The photography is extraordinarily beautiful, the cutting superb. The thin thread of story, of a shepherd’s young son drawn away from horse-breeding to agriculture, is unimportant: we need no story to enjoy the sight of these wild herds tossing across the enormous plain, against the flat sky, the shepherds in their traditional cloaks, with the heavy buckles and the embroidery, galloping like Tartar cavalry between the whitewashed cabins. The leaping of the stallions, the foaling of the mares are shown with a frankness devoid of offence and add to the impression that here we are seeing, as far as is humanly possible, the whole of a way of life. But we are not asked to admire one way more than another, the horse more than the tractor. We see the mounted shepherd deliberately smash his small son’s bicycle with the hooves of his horse, and the act is as ugly and as natural as the mare’s foaling.1

Greene’s review is clearly more sympathetic and perceptive than Nugent’s dismissive appraisal, and – luckily for Hoellering – T.S. Eliot agreed with Greene’s assessment. Indeed, it was a screening of Hortobagy, arranged by Hoellering, which convinced Eliot that the fledgling director had both the sensibility and skill to bring Murder in the Cathedral to the screen.

Murder in the Cathedral

Of his other films, Hoellering’s Message from Canterbury is far more straightforward, with just a 22-minute running time, and doesn’t attempt a narrative. Yet as an evocation of a time and place, the film is quietly effective in an undemanding manner. In retrospect, in terms of the visuals it seems a sort of a ‘warm up’ exercise for Murder in the Cathedral, but has little else to recommend it. Shapes and Forms, however, is much more ambitious, recalling similar American experimental films of the era, in particular Marie Menken’s Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945). As critic Lucy Rose Bayley wrote of seeing Shapes and Forms in April 2015,

Shapes and Forms…is, I believe, the first example of the ICA (The Institute of Contemporary Arts) on film. The exhibition was held in the basement of the Academy Hall Cinema in Oxford Street, which George Hoellering managed at the time. Over one night he created the film with the assistance of Roland Penrose. Now in the collection at the BFI, the film captures spot-lit objects rotating and emerging in and out of the darkness, accompanied by a modernist composition by Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist and conductor László Lajtha (who would later compose the score for Murder in the Cathedral). As the film’s unseen narrator intones,

There will be no lecturing to distract you. Aided by the music, the camera will be your guide on this journey through an enchanted world, where the human imagination blossoms out luxuriantly in the shapes and forms of art.

The film begins with this instruction. Slow down, listen to the music and appreciate. Then come the objects: details of Wilfredo Lam’s Anunciation (1944), Alberto Giacometti’s Figure (1936). The camera (then) tracks across Barbara Hepworth’s Figure (1931) … made in wood from the Baga tribe in French Guinea (now in the British Museum collection). There’s a brief interlude before returning to the same dark and light undulations…( as a work of art, the film is) exciting, opening up potential new ways of reading. Shapes and Forms holds this excitement; it attempts to read the objects in new ways through the camera.

But all of this work was, in essence, merely a prelude to Murder in the Cathedral, a project that long had been in Hoellering’s mind. His son Andrew relates the following of his father’s wartime experience,

George Hoellering was interned in the war on the Isle of Man. In this period, he was lent the play of Murder in the Cathedral by Karl Maurer, a friend and lecturer in German at the University of London. He also met the artist Peter Strausfeld who, over the years, went on to create a wonderful series of posters for the Academy Cinema, including one for the film of Murder in the Cathedral. The play made a huge impression on my father and he resolved one day to film it. His release from internment came sooner than expected. The Department of Information (DOI) found out that he was a filmmaker and, at some point, he either volunteered his services or they offered him work in their production department.2

Hoellering soon found himself integrated himself into British cultural society in the aftermath of World War II, and as a collateral victim of the war–forced to flee his homeland for the safety of England–Hoellering felt a great debt to the country that had offered him shelter during a difficult time. In 1944, Hoellering became the co-owner and managing director of the Academy Cinema, an “art house” theatre on Oxford Street. As Andrew Hoellering writes, by this time his father was moving in rather elite intellectual circles, and when George Hoellering and T.S. Eliot

finally met, in 1945…Eliot overcame his reluctance and agreed to let my father make the film because he liked him, [and] because of his enthusiasm and knowledge of the play…Eliot agreed to make a recording of the entire play in his own voice, to serve as a guide to the rhythms and emphases of the verse; for my father, the actors and [the film’s composer] László Lajtha. My father found Eliot’s recording very useful, and it suggested to him the possibility of using Eliot’s voice for the words of the Fourth Tempter, after he had the happy idea of presenting the fourth temptation merely as a voice proceeding from an invisible actor.3

And yet it took a great deal to persuade Eliot that the idea of a film of his verse play was even possible, much less advisable. Even so, Eliot’s initial reservations are (at least to me) curious, as they indicate a great deal of thought went into the poet’s participation in the final film. Eliot wrote shortly after the film’s release the following, which is worth quoting at length:

I should like…to make clear the limits of my collaboration. At the beginning, Mr. Hoellering asked me to make a film recording of the entire play in my own voice. This recording (which was only completed after a number of sessions) was to serve as a guide, for himself and for the actors, to the rhythms and emphases of the verse as I heard it myself. He tells me that he found this recording very useful: I only know that it suggested to him the possibility of using my voice for the words of the Fourth Tempter…

Eliot continues:

After making this first recording, I wrote the preliminary scenes which he told me would be needed to turn the play into an intelligible film. He gave me the subject-matter of these scenes: I had only to provide the words…If the new lines are judged to be as good as the old ones, that may call into question the value of the play itself as a contribution to poetry; but I shall nevertheless conclude that the additions constitute a successful tour de force.

Beyond the execution of these two definite tasks, my collaboration in the making of the film seems to have been limited to frequent discussions with the producer, in which I accepted nearly all of his suggestions, to frequent visits to the workshop and the studio, and one or two lengthy arguments where differences of opinion arose. Such occasions were rare. I learned something about film technique. And, just as, in learning a foreign language, we learn more about the resources and limitations of our own, so I think that I learned something more about the theatre, in discovering the different resources and limitations of the screen.

The first and most obvious difference, I found, was that the cinema (even where fantasy is introduced) is much more realistic than the stage. Especially in an historical picture, the setting, the costume, and the way of life represented have to be accurate. Even a minor anachronism is intolerable. On the stage much can be overlooked or forgiven; and indeed, an excessive care for accuracy of historical detail can become burdensome and distracting. In watching a stage performance, the member of the audience is in direct contact with the actor, is always conscious that he is looking at a stage and listening to an actor playing a part. In looking at a film, we are much more passive; as audience, we contribute less. We are seized with the illusion that we are observing the actual event, or at least a series of photographs of the actual event; and nothing must be allowed to break this illusion.4

And yet 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.

From Play to Film

As the film opens, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (Father John Groser) is returning after seven years of self-imposed exile in France, during which time King Henry II (Alexander Gauge) has consolidated his power to such a degree that his rule is both tyrannical and absolute. Here is one of the first of many remarkable aspects of the film. Father John Groser, known as the “Rebel Priest of the East End” was not an actor, but rather a real-life member of the clergy, who consistently spoke out against injustice and inequity from the pulpit. In 1938, for example, Groser was named president of the Stepney Tenants Defense League, and in May, 1939, issued a manifesto on behalf of his constituents, decrying the rapacious behavior of local landlords, which read in part,

In the nine months of our development we are able to say that we have beaten back the Landlords who have for years sucked the lifeblood of the people of Stepney. Your organisation has not only given the lead to the people of Stepney but also to the whole country. Our aim is to continue to wage the war against high rents and bad housing conditions. As well as your demand from the organisation the protection it offers, your organisation demands from you an understanding of the enormous problems that face it in its fight.5

In the summer of 1939, Father Groser led a non-violent strike to pressure slum landlords to clean up their buildings, and cease unlawful evictions of tenants; the strike was a success. He was also an early advocate for equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race, creed, or color, and equally passionate in defense of the rights of women. Through the years, Groser continued to wage war against plutocrats, arguing that faith inevitably “leads to the necessity of the Christian’s identification of himself with human beings in need”. 6

Murder in the Cathedral

Thus, as the performative centerpiece of Murder in the Cathedral, Groser is authentic, commanding, and absolutely assured in the role, lending a veracity to his performance that a conventional actor could not possibly convey. One gets the very real sense that he is living the part, striving against injustice within the film just as he did in real life. In direct contrast to this multi-layered authenticity, actor Niall MacGinnis, later so memorable as the malevolent Satanist Dr. Julian Karswell in Jacques Tourneur Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon, 1957), appears as a herald in a brief scene, which he executes with nonchalant precision, confident in both the dialogue and his ability to hold the viewer’s attraction. Nevertheless, he is acting, and his performance is precisely that–he is playing the role of a 12th century herald just as he would any other part, as a job of work, no matter how prestigious, in a film or play.

Similarly, as Becket wrestles with his conscience and the ever-increasing knowledge that his intransigence in the face of King Henry II’s demands all but ensures his martyrdom, he is confronted by four tempters. The first (David Ward) advises Becket to save his own life, even if this violates his personal beliefs. The second (George Woodbridge) offers a vision of wealth and power if Becket agrees to Henry’s demands. The third (Basil Burton) suggests that Becket should join forces with the seemingly powerless barons and fight against King Henry’s rule. The fourth tempter (Eliot’s own voice) urges Becket to actively seek martyrdom, which he finds the hardest to resist, inasmuch as this is what his fate will ultimately be. This is the key moment in the play, and the film; for Eliot and Becket, it is the reason behind the martyrdom that matters most; why Becket should sacrifice himself for his beliefs.

Silky and sinuous, Eliot’s voice calmly offers Becket the spoils of glorious martyrdom, with all the pride and posthumous fame that such an act engenders. This is easily the most effective “temptation” of the lot cinematically, as Hoellering cuts around the inner chamber of the cathedral in which Becket paces back and forth. Now in light, now in shadow, the camera often focuses just on the light from a window, or a detail of a tapestry, as Eliot’s smoothly persuasive voice urges Becket to the precipice of self-sacrifice. Yes, Becket will die, but not for the reason that the fourth tempter suggests: he will let events overtake him, as dictated by his conscience alone. When King Henry’s minions strike him down, the deed will be theirs alone; their act, and the act of the monarch who set them on their murderous path.

But in placing Father John Groser in the lead, and shooting in a deserted church in St. John’s Wood standing in for Canterbury Cathedral – ironically, although he sought and obtained permission to shoot there, Hoellering found the real cathedral “too worn out, both inside and out, to be convincing as a representation of the way the cathedral would have looked in 1164”7 – the film was completed in a mere six weeks on an extremely modest budget. The mix of professionals and amateurs in the cast, coupled with the sculptural austerity of the film’s design, pleased Eliot greatly, prompting him to write to Hoellering shortly before shooting began that

I am now convinced, as I was not, you will remember, before you began [pre-production], that Murder in the Cathedral can make a fine film and a very unusual one; and I am also more certain than ever that I could not have entrusted the filming of the play to anyone but yourself.8

It is a sentiment I agree with. Even with Hoellering’s telling use of the human face in close-up as one of the predominant visual components of the film, and the concentrating effect of the relative scarcity of exterior sequences, with most of the film confined to the claustrophobic interior of the cathedral, it is Eliot’s language, and his bleak sense of personal responsibility writ large that ultimately informs the structure of the film.

Murder in the Cathedral

From this perspective, Murder in the Cathedral recalls how Bach’s music creates the overarching design of Jean-Marie Straub’s equally austere The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968). In Straub’s groundbreaking film, performances are reduced to an almost Bressonian level, the better to foreground Bach’s music, coupled with the everyday struggle simply to survive financially in an increasingly mercantile world. Bach’s total dedication to his art becomes much like Becket’s unwavering fidelity to his own personal moral compass, and for all the supposed and oft-remarked-upon “literalness” of Straub’s film, Chronicle is a work in which sound supersedes the image, and yet becomes inextricably intertwined with it, so that the images and music form an abstract poetry of their own for the viewer. The same is true for Murder in the Cathedral: Eliot’s language creates a kind of music that combines with Hoellering’s solemn tracking shots to convey a landscape of trial, triumph, and personal destiny.

As Adam Scovell keenly observed of Hoellering’s completed film,

Murder in the Cathedral is an intriguing film in that it is both uniquely interesting and hampered by its desire to stay true to the authenticity of its source material. Hoellering earnestly sticks as close as possible to the verse drama of T.S. Eliot on which the film is based on, making it seem intensely experimental and cloyingly puritanical depending on the scenario in question . . . The narrative of the drama itself has been called upon most famously in Peter Glenville’s Becket (1964) but Murder in the Cathedral is an entirely different way of conveying the story and is an unfair comparison to make.

He continues:

In relying so much on Eliot’s verses, Hoellering is forced to innovate visually and the strongest moments of the film are when it slips into total abstraction and away from the performances. By aligning several voices into the nondiegetic realm (including Eliot himself as Becket’s fourth tempter), there’s ample opportunity for the film to indulge in landscapes, textures and faces which reflect the poetry of the words in a way that is both loyal to their rhythm and meter but also rises above simply burdening the language with heavy symbolism. The film’s early attempts at this are especially strong, often using chants to add an aptly mantra-like quality to the theological content over rural images. When the film does emphasise these moments, it seems in hindsight to call upon the cinematic grammar of Hoellering’s short films …

Many of the scenes in Murder in the Cathedral are ensemble compositions, in which either a chorus of speakers (usually women) directly address the audience, or one lone speaker imparts some information – often false or misleading – to those who surround him or her, as in Niall McGinnis’s turn as the herald. It is also worth noting that the film is absolutely designed for black and white, and David Kosky’s brooding, darkly atmospheric compositions effectively convey the mood of menace and foreboding inherent in Eliot’s text. In the sculptural severity of the film, one gets the very strong sense that both Eliot and Hoellering are insisting upon the primacy of moral agency here above all other considerations; on the social demands that are placed on those in authority to speak with both truth and clarity, and when this is impossible, to oppose counterfeit authority with all the resources at one’s command.

Murder in the Cathedral

Clearly, this was the lifelong mission of Father John Groser. Hoellering’s brilliant stroke in casting a person of genuine moral fibre in the central role of the film lends it both immediacy and real agency, akin to Rossellini’s work in such films as Open City (1945), made in the last days of the fascist regime in Italy. Likewise, the continual ‘grouping’ strategy that the film employs (as does the play) makes clear that the need for effective leadership in times of crisis is essential, because when faced with continual oppression (as the reign of King Henry II forces upon its constituents) a sort of paralytic fear settles over the general public, leaving only those who support the corrupt regime any measure of action. For the rest, supplication is their only recourse, and without Becket’s towering presence, and his ensuing, unavoidable martyrdom, no real change in the social order is possible.

While Hoellering’s film is a ‘one off,’ it is clearly a disciplined labor of love on both Eliot and Hoellering’s part, creating a film that is simultaneously meditational, elegiac, and a prophetic foretelling that the test of character that Becket confronts will be faced by others in the future again and again. At the start of the play, Becket had initially fled to France to avoid death, but in exile realised that no escape was truly possible, and that his only course lay in active resistance and confrontation, even if it cost him his life. For what is a life without conviction? As Andrew Hoellering sums up his father’s film, “The struggle between secular and religious power, between authority and the conscience of each individual must needs be re-enacted, as was for Becket, as it is with each one of us, in every generation”.9 This, in the end, is the achievement of Murder in the Cathedral, a work that Eliot and Hoellering created together, as one of the most uncompromising and unusual literary adaptations ever brought to the screen. It is an utterly personal project which answers only to itself and to its makers.

 

Endnotes

  1. Graham Greene, “At the Plaza–Hortobagy,” The Spectator December 18, 1936: 15.
  2. Andrew Hoellering, “Murder in the Cathedral: Film, Play, Book,” Murder in the Cathedral DVD Pamphlet. London: BFI, 2015: pp.1-10, p. 1.
  3. Andrew Hoellering, “Murder in the Cathedral: Film, Play, Book,” Murder in the Cathedral DVD Pamphlet. London: BFI, 2015: pp.1-10, p. 4.
  4. T.S. Eliot, “Preface,” The Film of Murder in the Cathedral, George Hoellering and T.S. Eliot. London: Faber and Faber, 1952: pp. 7-10, p. 5.
  5. Quoted in Andrea Gibbons, “Father John Groser, Rebel Priest of the East End,” Writing Cities.com June 10, 2015.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Andrew Hoellering, “Murder in the Cathedral: Film, Play, Book,” Murder in the Cathedral DVD Pamphlet. London: BFI, 2015: pp.1-10, p. 7.
  8. Andrew Hoellering, “Murder in the Cathedral: Film, Play, Book,” Murder in the Cathedral DVD Pamphlet. London: BFI, 2015: pp.1-10, p. 7.
  9. Andrew Hoellering, “Murder in the Cathedral: Film, Play, Book,” Murder in the Cathedral DVD Pamphlet. London: BFI, 2015: pp.1-10, p. 10.

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press. Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema: A Brief History (2015) was featured on Turner Classic Movies as part of their series “Artists in Black and White.” Just published is Dixon’s newest book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (co-authored with Richard Graham (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).