Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Man for All Seasons (1966) - Movie Review

"More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity: a man for all seasons."
~Robert Whittington, 1520

This film took me by storm. I expected a dry, rather cheap-looking medieval period piece, with a few quirky British thesps to spice up an otherwise dull historical biopic. Given the age and source, it seemed like an archetype of respectable, old-fashioned film-making. In a way it was. It wouldn’t be made today—it was far, far from the cutting edge of cinema, even in its own time. But it’s just these things that allow it to be the best film I’ve seen this year. 

A riveting political fable, A Man for All Seasons is jam-packed with superb performers and spearheaded by the most interesting protagonist I’ve encountered in a long time. It uses many standard conventions—long scenes, big-budget visuals, everything a little bit stagey, but given these play-like customs, it is allowed a slow, insistent growth of suspense and complexity of character. There are moments when you could cut the tension with a knife, mostly due to clash of personality between these expertly drawn characters.

Let me be honest: I'm an ignorant Protestant. I knew absolutely nothing about Sir Thomas More before watching the film. I barely knew anything about the Tudor period, beyond a few sketchy, salacious details about Henry VIII and his six wives. The story takes place between Henry's first and second wives, and the plot centers around Henry's struggle to obtain a divorce and the man who stood in his way: Thomas More. What follows is a long legal battle between a selfish and tyrannical king and his principled subject, the latter of whom takes what refuge he can in the religious freedom of his time. To More there was, as Chesterton describes it: "a sort of escape upwards. There were limits to Caesar; and there was liberty with God....Thomas More....objected to the Divine Right of Kings."

More's devotion to religious freedom is a little historically dubious (amusingly, both my dad and I independently yielded to temptation and googled him before finishing the movie), but even so, the nonreligious screenwriter, Robert Bolt, portrays him as a hero (Bolt also wrote Lawrence of Arabia and The MissionSteven Greydanus points out that in even-tempered More Bolt creates a man who is almost an exact counterbalance to aimless Lawrence).

What is certain is that both the real and fictional More was unwilling to openly defy the king's marriage, but, throughout the film, uses every means he can to preserve his life and livelihood. Usually, this means dipping into his extensive reservoir of eloquence, which results in some dazzling displays of verbal wit.

Originally written as a play, the film changes very little in its presentation, albeit with some beautiful visual shots of the Thames. This caused some critics to complain of a lag in pace as actors delivered enormous chunks of dialogue. Personally, I could barely drag my eyes away, but this is probably because I found the dialogue enchanting. These are words that spark and simmer, lengthy, eloquent addresses that speak of God and Man and kingdoms and principalities. None of these people slip into lazy conjunctions or slang—this is pure, grandiose language that utterly convinces one that these are children of another, more intelligent age.

Not any old cast could handle such a task, but Man for All Seasons gathers an exceptional ensemble. Wendy Hiller is wonderful as Sir Thomas’s fiery, exasperated wife, and a very young John Hurt appears as an ambitious, misguided statesman. Nigel Davenport is superbly gruff, proud, and conflicted as Norfolk. Orson Welles makes the most of his brief cameo as the leonine Cardinal Wolsey, and Robert Shaw (known for Jaws) is a hilarious King Henry VIII. Some of the others are a little flat (Leo McKern's Thomas Cromwell was, for instance, a little blandly villainous), but when put in a room with the mesmerizing Paul Scofield as Thomas More, no one really cares.

Because it’s really his show. Now obscure (mostly due, I guess, to his reclusiveness and few film appearances), Paul Scofield was, in his day, ranked with Olivier and Gielgud among the stage’s greatest actors. It’s easy to see why. He inhabits the role of More with a winning mixture of solemnity, humor, eloquence, and strength that ultimately gained him both a Tony and an Oscar.

His graciousness makes every other character seem, by contrast, a Pilate or a Judas caught between resentment and admiration, simply unable to relate to such a moral giant. Though Bolt's screenplay is terrific, it is Scofield's delivery that imbues it with such tragic grandeur. His mellifluous voice, powerful presence, and solemn face perfectly lend themselves to such an indomitable authority, but his thundering silences say far more than words. He's close to flawless, and it's little wonder, given that he originated the role in the West End, and perfected it for years before starring in the movie.

So yeah, he's good. I think the dividing factor between those who like the film and those who love it is their impression of Scofield. He blew me away. (The rest of my family was, by necessity, impressed, but I'm the only one still talking about it.) Partly, it's the character's bracing ethical clarity. Listening to Thomas More comes like a fiery shot of Chesterton's implacable absolutes after the limpid, tasteless moral equivocations and mincing metaphors of that most fickle of modern animals: the politician. Actually, this film sounds a lot like something Chesterton would have written (he was, coincidentally, a huge Thomas More fan), especially with lines like this one, where More explains to his daughter why he will use any means within conscience to escape the immoral laws of their land:

God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it's God's part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping.

From a thematic standpoint, religious freedom is more central to the plot than what More actually stood for: a Catholic belief in marriage. This lends it a universality which allows even those who don't agree with More to sympathize with him. Like Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, A Man for All Seasons is a sterling defense of freedom of belief, an interesting examination of the difference between law and morality, and an astounding tale of believers who refused to render Caesar that which was not his due, that which did not bear his image: their selves.

I'll be revisiting this one for many years to come.

5/5 stars

Hannah Long


  1. I am convinced I need to watch this. I've heard of the title, but knew nothing about it. I have to say, when you're so passionately enthused, your posts are even more eloquent then usual. I loved

    "These are words that spark and simmer, lengthy, eloquent addresses that speak of God and Man and kingdoms and principalities. None of these people slip into lazy conjunctions or slang—this is pure, grandiose language that utterly convinces one that these are children of another, more intelligent age."

    Yep, love that. I'd say that you deserve to be known for your writing, and I can't wait to see where it takes you. Now, to find this movie....

  2. Oh dear! This is the part where I make an ass of myself by boasting that I was learning all about Thomas More in elementary school even though I'm a Protestant too. :-) My mom had me write an essay comparing and contrasting him with Thomas Cranmer.

    Have you read the play? There's material in the play that was cut for the film version, which is also good but not AS good. Also, you need to read Bolt's "author's preface," it's like a work of art in itself! Go to Amazon here and simply pull up the preview:

    Great idea to contrast More with Lawrence of Arabia. That hadn't occurred to me, but I agree with you.

    1. I realized later that I had heard of More, but only as the author of Utopia - nothing beyond that.

      Haven't read the play - but it's definitely on my list. Bolt wrote another film called The Mission which was also very good (1st and 3rd acts salvage a dull 2nd act.)

      Yeah, credit goes to Greydanus on that contrast between the characters, but I was also impressed by that coincidence. Read later that Bolt betrayed his principles to get out of prison (he was anti-nuclear proliferation) to finish the Lawrence script and was haunted by that afterward (though he'd already written Man for All Season at this point, ironically.) He wrote lots of individual-versus-society/authority tales - The Mission is another of those.


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