A screen adaptation of T. S. Eliot's verse play on the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1149, Becket was murdered in his cathedral by four of Henry II's knights after the King, angered at Becket's stand against the encroachment on the Church by the State, had asked "who will avenge me on one upstart clerk?".
Eliot has said that his original verse play was written for "a rather special kind of audience &ndash: an audience of those serious people who go to 'festivals' and expect to have to put up with poetry". It was written to be performed in Canterbury Cathedral, accepting the limitations and exploiting the special advantage of such a setting. The film adaptation also is for a special audience. Even the abridged version of the play contains more poetry than the average person is willing to accept at one sitting.
Seldom has a film demanded so much cooperation from the spectator. George Hoellering says: "I should like Murder in the Cathedral to be regarded as an experiment in a new type of film, where dialogue is at last given an equal place to picture, and where the audience is called upon to listen as well as to look".
It highlights the differences between stage and screen, differences which Eliot and Hoellering had continually before them when modifying the original play. In analysing the changes Eliot states: "The film . . . demands rather different treatment of plot. An intricate plot, intelligible on the stage, might he completely mystifying on the screen. The audience has no time to think back. . . ." Thus he added a new opening scene to explain the background of events.
Since the camera must never stand still, the speeches of the Four Knights which in the play are addressed directly to the audience, had to be completely revised.
The other major difference between the film and the play is in the handling of the Women's Chorus. They have been integrated with the action in a way which it would be impossible to achieve on the stage.