“Many a man in his great pain and sickness, by calling upon God, is marvelously made whole.”
- Sir Thomas More (1534)
For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul in the process? A question asked and answered in Fred Zinnemann’s magnificent cinema stagecraft, A Man For All Seasons (1966); a taut character and case study in defense of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), an English nobleman/lawyer who defied his sovereign liege, only to pay the supreme price for his integrity. Stories about an unscrupulous aristocracy had proven all the rage with English audiences. Indeed, in American films too, and for some time, tales of palace intrigues continued to fascinate and enthrall. There is a distinction to be made, however. Whilst British audiences likely considered such treks into antiquity an extension of their own natural history, the chief allure for American audiences likely stemmed from the foreignness of this cultural heritage. Before it was an Academy Award-winning motion picture, A Man For All Seasons began life as a radio play, written by noted scenarist, Robert Bolt and produced for the BBC. It was later adapted as a one hour live performance for television in the U.K. Ultimately, it was Bolt’s success with The Flowering Cherry that convinced him to rework A Man For All Seasons for the stage, although likely even he could not have imagined how universally successful it would become. Critically and commercially, the stage incarnation became a smash on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet, Hollywood expressed little interest to produce it as a major motion picture.
The plot is essentially based on the historical record regarding Sir Thomas More, a 16th-century Chancellor of England who refused to annul King Henry VIII's (Robert Shaw) marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon. Cate cannot bear Henry a son. The fault, so time and history have proven, was Henry’s, as further attempts to propagate the royal bloodline with mistresses, Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave) and her elder sister, produced no viable male successor to the throne. More is a man of principle, simultaneously envied and despised by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Orson Welles) and Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). It stands to reason – More cannot be bought off or swayed in his opinions. He exercises the offices of his royal appointment with absolute sincerity. More is the King’s greatest ally and his most trusted advisor…if only Henry would reconsider his devotion as such; also, his own ambivalence toward More, greatly colored by his lust for Anne. Heavy is the head that wears the crown? Hardly. Henry is crude, devilish and quite incapable of sincerity. But he can recognize More’s quandary, even if he emphatically refuses to accept his decision on the matter.
On stage, Robert Bolt had employed the device of a central narrator to provide a link between events and add historical context to the story; tertiary characters such as the boatman, town cleric, king’s messenger, and, jailer; at intervals, each interrupting the story with their social critique, all of them inevitably played by the same actor. Director, Fred Zinnemann had much admired and sincerely hoped to retain this device for his film; coaxed out of this decision by Bolt, who gingerly suggested the requirements of film greatly differed from those acceptable in a live theater. Zinnemann would eventually concur. Bolt’s ability to revise, rework and pare down his lengthy prose into a manageable, and, even more ingenious and taut screenplay cannot be overestimated. If anything, the cinematic incarnation of A Man for All Seasons is a more richly satisfying and herculean entertainment because of Bolt’s daringly telescopic focus, jettisoning both the play’s subplot involving Queen Catherine of Aragon, as well as purging virtually all the historical context and back story. The best parts in the movie are its heated exchanges between Scofield’s moralizing More and King Henry VIII; England’s caustic liege and accidental monarch, played with a deliciously psychotic streak by the virile and deviously handsome, Robert Shaw. Alas, Shaw’s later career would be hamstrung and colored by this brilliant performance, typecast as slightly unhinged bullies in films like The Sting (1973) and Jaws (1975), perhaps, because in life, Shaw exhibited similar characteristics that would eventually brand him as unmanageable and undesirable to work with; his inevitable decline and fall prematurely ended with his unexpected death from a heart attack at the meager age of fifty-one.
At its crux, A Man for All Seasons is a wordy discussion on the sanctity of religious freedoms, on the separation of church and state, and of one man’s political defiance of autocratic authority. Thomas More was, in essence, a finely wrought English gentleman, influenced by a clear-eyed study and sense of the law; also, inspired toward the betterment of all peoples via his appreciations for art, theology, literature and the humanities of the Italian Renaissance. Scofield’s More is the very embodiment of this complex and contrasting individual, gutsily refusing to take the Oath of Succession and sacrificing himself for Christianity as well as his fervent and undying beliefs in the Catholic faith. Among his many other attributes, More was a superb writer, committing his thoughts to 22 volumes, nine of his most prolific written during the last four years of his life. In one of his earliest explorations, More weighs the pros and cons of a state ruled by a monarch as opposed to one governed by a senate; siding with the senate every time, but equally espousing the obviousness of England’s history to be governed by a royal dynasty.
In 1516, More would write his most clairvoyant and enduring masterwork, Utopia; a novel about an ideal society that can never be, though nevertheless should clearly be the template and aspiration for a modern civilized world. In this book, More contrasts and compares his own humanist beliefs with the imperishable religiosity of Roman Catholicism; siding with rational beliefs while pointing to their utter futility without a religious framework to protect and guide the course of human evolution. In this, More’s perspective was, perhaps, not unlike the younger Henry VIII; hardly the squinty-eyed and heavy set despot depicted in Hans Holbein’s immortal painting, but the young and impassioned - if unlikely – heir to the throne, who desired virtue, glory and immortality above monetary riches. It is one of history’s great accidents Henry became England’s ruler after the death of his elder brother, King Arthur; married to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon via a dispensation from the Pope – God’s emissary on earth. Indeed, the granting of such a dispensation for a marriage made strictly as a matter of state, seemed to fly in the face of a Biblical precedent; Leviticus 18:16 which states “thou shall not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife; it is thy brother’s nakedness.”
In defense of having his marriage annulled, Henry would employ this passage as proof positive God had damned him by denying the couple the right to conceive a child. More however, held tight to the rigidity of his own Catholic beliefs: that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was valid; that the predecessor to the current Pope had given his dispensation with God’s complicity and blessing, and as such, it could not be reversed by any earthly means. Incensed, Henry drew More nearer to his bosom and court, appointing him his Lord Chancellor under the false assumption More would suffer a change of heart – or at least, of mind – and side with him so he could pursue and eventually marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. More likely accepted this position expecting his staunch influence would eventually wear down and convince Henry to relinquish his passion for Anne and return to Catherine. Neither man was to be satisfied by this appointment and More, after several uncomfortable years at court, ultimately resigned his post; vowing to honor his king in ‘other matters’ while remaining steadfastly opposed to even the notion for an annulment.
Alas, More chose a quiet life in theory only; his contempt of Henry’s decision to seize power over the Church of England, thus creating a break with Rome, revealed in his philosophical literary works, particularly 1533’s The Apology which does not directly address Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, though nevertheless is fairly subversive and even more transparent in illustrating the obligations of fidelity to a previous union sanctified by God. More’s final work, ‘Dialogue on Conflict Against Tribulation’ goes one step further, pointing to the purpose of kings: to strive for the betterment of all people, rather than simply exist for their own dynastic pleasures and pursuits. The ‘quiet life’ would not remain as such for very long; Henry, prompted by an investigation put forth by the enterprising Thomas Cromwell (superbly realized in the film by Leo McKern), the results culminating in allegations of sedition, forcing Henry’s hand and leading to More’s imprisonment in the Tower of London and subsequent beheading. In his final address to the court before being sentenced to death, More offers a final and very sobering chastisement; explaining that in his silence he had remained the king’s good servant – though, God’s first. To answer the charges would have meant death to his soul; to abstain from any comment now, the likely and anticipated death of his body. So be it.
Remarkably, both Robert Bolt’s play and his screenplay remain faithful to the particulars of this sordid history, reconstituted as eloquent drama by Bolt’s illustrious way with a wit and words. Yet, in hindsight, both the play and the movie’s greatest asset can be summarized in one commodity: Paul Scofield. Indeed, Scofield’s ability to slip into character, tapping the inner soul with complete absence of personal ego, absorbed and transformed as a chameleon into this man of the hour, is peerless from beginning to end. When Scofield speaks, his words resonate not merely as expertly crafted dialogue delivered via a finely wrought grammarian, but with a sinewy and fibrous devotion to the man himself…or perhaps, as he might have been. From the moment he steps in front of the camera, Scofield, whose own physicality is decidedly distinct, nevertheless ceases to exist. His interpretation becomes the character, possessing him completely. Scofield’s More is unaffectedly a man of personal convictions, a monastic civil servant played with resplendent restraint. It remains a performance largely held together by Scofield’s dynamic vocal inflections. He is the stationary presence in the film, the camera poised to capture even the subtlest nuance of which there are many to collectively summarize the whole of the man.
Scofield plays More as the Reformation martyr, torn between a life of civil service and his own thwarted monastic calling; surrounded by enemies, including Thomas Cromwell and the enterprising, Richard Rich (John Hurt); an awkwardly ambitious youth, encouraged by More to pursue a teaching career, though easily swayed and manipulated by Cromwell’s promises and the allure of a life at court, enough to bring down and destroy More’s reputation. In the dead of night, More is summoned to Hampton Court by Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles); plagued by the King to agree to a reversal of his marital dispensation. Wolsey is acutely aware of the church’s stance on divorce, pursuing More’s support to bolster his own waning resolve. He also realizes the consequences for denying a royal command. Regrettably, More will not lend his name to this decision. Eavesdropping on their conversation, Cromwell is mildly amused and perhaps even pleased. A rift in the court of Henry VIII has already begun; the peoples’ affections for the monarchy waning. Later, and rather ruthlessly, Cromwell will blackmail Rich to defame More’s credibility and reputation, forcing the king to declare More’s actions treasonous, thus turning popular opinion against him too.
At home, More’s has more prescient issues to resolve. His uneducated wife, Alice (Wendy Hiller) is staunchly supportive of his morality, though equally bitter over the prospect of losing her station in life simply to prove her husband’s point of logic. More’s daughter, Margaret (Susannah York) is entertaining amorous overtures from a seditionist suitor, William Roper (Corin Redgrave). To complicate matters further, More will not allow Margaret to marry unless William pledges his allegiances to the Crown and respects his wishes as Margaret’s father and the ‘right hand’ of the throne of England – something Roper emphatically refuses to do. Meanwhile, the Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport) is devoted to More, and equally contemptuous of Cromwell’s ability to inveigle the court in these unflattering intrigues. The King favors More’s household with a visit; the entire family agog at the prospect. Herein, cinematographer, Ted Moore captures the essence of Henry VIII’s larger-than-life persona; emerging from the backlit shadow of the sun like a great pagan god; his golden royal robes glittering, his leggings muddied from traipsing up the embankment to More’s Tudor estate. In reality, the sea and house were located several hundred miles apart; director, Zinnemann unable to find a suitable estate nearer the water’s edge. The muddy leggings are, of course, a metaphor for Henry’s flawed desire to remarry; his inability to convince More to side with him. Henry has already ‘stepped in it’ as it were, and destined to sink into the mire brought about by his terrible lust for Anne.
Publicly, the King smiles, is gracious toward Alice and flirtatious with Margaret. But afterward he challenges More to reconsider his decision; is demonstratively put off when More resists both his bombast and his argument, and impetuously storms off in a huff and back to court to contemplate his next line of recourse without ever having entered More’s home to indulge in the feast prepared in his honor. Wolsey dies; Norfolk retrieving his chancellor’s chain of state and, under the King’s orders, make More the next Lord Chancellor of the realm. At precisely this same instance Cromwell springs into action, appealing to Rich’s greed and exploiting it to suit his own dark purpose. The impressionable lad is out of his element and easily duped. Charges are brought against More who is first placed under house arrest, then later imprisoned in the Tower of London. Eventually, Cromwell brings the gravest charges of treason to light. Bound strictly by the canons of the law, More is sentenced to death.
However, More plainly reminds the court that whilst he practiced law it was customary to inquire if the condemned had any final words to speak. Reluctantly, the judges grant this request and More seals his own fate with an eloquent oration; explaining how Henry’s oath of Succession is an anathema not only to the Holy Church – and by extension, Christ’s teachings – but also a direct conflict of interest to Henry’s own Coronation oath in which he vowed to remain the custodian of God’s law and maintain the separation of church and state. More cites the Magna Carta and the church’s right to be free, illustrating for the court that having thus anointed himself the temporal head of the church, Henry has defied his promise, broken with centuries of tradition, but most importantly, defiled God’s law. While all he says is undeniably true, it is not enough to spare him. Sir Thomas More is beheaded, but not before he declares with a twinge of embittered sadness, “I die his Majesty’s good servant…but God’s first!”
A Man for All Seasons is a conflict of identity vs. conscience; More repeatedly illuminating a man’s character is defined by his conscience. Nowhere is this more plainly illustrated than in the scene between More and Norfolk, the latter imploring More to side with him and the other prominent figures at court who have already signed Henry’s Succession to the Crown Act. Frustrated by his own clumsy inability to convince More of his pro forma argument, Norfolk appeals to More on the basis of their enduring friendship, saying “Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” to which More critically replies, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
The other thematic thread running through both the play and the movie demonstrates Robert Bolt’s anti-authoritarianism. Apart from Sir Thomas More, virtually every prominent figure at court, (King Henry, Cromwell, Wolsey, et al) is depicted as perversely fraudulent, self-serving and power-mad. Bolt antes up his impressions of absolute power as a corrosive influence, in the character of young master Rich who is easily brought to ruin by his own avarice. Early in the film, More is presented with a silver chalice as an obvious bribe by a mysterious lady who advises he is “doing more good” than he knows. Mildly surprised by the ‘gift’, More later tosses it into the lake, frantically retrieved by his boatman (Thomas Heathcote) and given to Rich by More with the understanding it was meant to influence his decision on a case set before the courts. More studies Rich’s reaction; recognizing in it a fundamental weakness for the finer things in life, only attainable if Rich is willing to sell himself short and barter away his reputation for a few sovereign pieces of gold. It is a moment fraught with Bolt’s brilliant sense of foreshadowing for the tragic outcome between mentor and student. As Rich, denied any sort of encouragement or even a modest recommendation by More to ascend to a desirable life at court, eventually sides with Cromwell to bypass and expedite his future prospects.
Finally, there is Bolt’s obdurate case in support of the rule of law, eloquently played in a scene very near the end between More and his future son-in-law, Roper, who urges for the arrest of Richard Rich on the grounds of perjury. However, More suggests Rich has broken no law. Under the law, all are eligible for due process – even the devil. Appalled by the insinuation the devil should be entitled to the same considerations as an innocent man, More astutely explains, “…and what would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil? ... And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper; the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast. Man's laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down – and you're just the man to do it – do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.”
It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that the picture executives at Columbia initially thought no one would want to see became the sleeper hit of the season and the runaway Oscar-winner; nominated for eight, and winning in six of the most prestigious categories: Best Costume Design - Elizabeth Haffenden, Joan Bridge; Best Cinematography – Ted Moore; Best adapted screenplay – Robert Bolt; Best Director – Fred Zinnemann; Best Actor – Paul Scofield, and finally, Best Picture. Kismet seems to have favored the production from the start. Zinnemman was devoted to Bolt’s play and quickly jumped at the chance to direct the movie. Alas, even with such a heavy hitter at its helm, Zinnemann had great difficulty convincing the powers at Columbia to finance the picture. In the changing climate of sixties cinema, the director was repeatedly told “nobody wants to see a costume picture with very little action, void of violence, sex or even a basic love story.” Ironically, Columbia’s reticence allowed Zinnemann to cast Scofield in the title role; a decision initially balked at, despite the fact Scofield had made the part his own in London and on Broadway. Columbia would have preferred Richard Burton, while no less an actor than Charlton Heston had aggressively lobbied for consideration. As Columbia was not banking much on the movie’s success, and had severely pared down its budget, Zinnemann could scarcely afford to cast his picture with brand name, high-priced ‘stars’; thus ensuring greater fidelity to the original stage show’s success.
Most of A Man for All Seasons was shot on location; the production fudging the exterior of Hampton Court with a cardboard and plywood façade expertly lit and photographed by Ted Moore to convey size and scope; the largest set constructed - the courtroom - lavishly appointed with stadium seating and stained glass windows. For a pivotal sequence in which Norfolk rides through heavy fog and snow to retrieve Wolsey’s Chancellor’s chain, even Mother Nature complied with Zinnemann’s request. The scene called for snow-covered ground. Alas, production had commenced in mid-April; usually well past the possibility for snowfall. Zinnemman had thus arranged for trucks to dump Styrofoam on the chosen location; startled, however, when the skies suddenly turned dark and clouded over, a heavy snow begun to fall. By morning, Zinnemann had exactly the landscape he had desired to recreate, quickly assembling his cast and crew for the shoot. A few hours later, the sun came out and the snow was gone. Critics of the day positively raved about the movie. Today, A Man for All Seasons remains a monumental achievement, as compelling and as eloquent; in every sense, extraordinary and satisfying. How many pictures made in the last thirty years can hold a similar claim?
Sony Home Entertainment lacks faith to debut A Man for All Seasons on Blu-ray via their own label as a mainstream release. Instead, this classy and riveting high-stakes drama has gone the ‘limited edition’ route via Twilight Time; forgivable (and even preferred) given we now have the movie looking nearly immaculate with Georges Delerue’s exemplary score isolated in stereo on an alternate track for our listening pleasure. I’ll begin by saying the image quality herein is thick and heavy on grain, as it presumably should be, although I confess, I found the opening ‘Columbia Pictures’ credit slightly blurry and looking fairly careworn and muddy in its color and contrast. That brief exception aside, what’s here is magnificently realized. Previous editions of A Man for All Seasons on DVD have suffered from severely bumped contrast levels, usually employed to artificially brighten the image. Again, Ted Moore’s original cinematography is primarily lit either by natural sunlight during the day or by reserved key lighting augmenting the natural flicker of candlelight or glow off a roaring hearth. This 1080p image re-invigorates the sumptuous ‘darkness’ of that original endeavor.
Moore’s efforts are best viewed in a completely darkened room. Fine detail is never wanting and color saturation is first rate. Flesh tones are particularly satisfying whereas on previous DVD’s they were quite often a very unhealthy and pasty pink. A brief word about the grain structure: while looking indigenous to its source, I am not altogether convinced by its thickness. At times, I found it slightly distracting. Also, there are minute traces of age-related debris (a very minor quibble). The remastered 5.1 audio is impressive. A Man for All Seasons is primarily a dialogue-driven movie. The real benefactor is Delerue’s score, reproduced with exacting clarity. As already mentioned, Twilight Time adds an isolate score option that improves considerably upon the sonic resonance of the music, heard without its integrated dialogue and effects. Finally, we get a spectacular audio commentary featuring Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and film historian, Lem Dobbs. Twilight Time also carries over a featurette Sony produced for its SE DVD reissue, basically concentrating on the real Thomas Moore with expert commentary provided by prominent historians. Bottom line: definitely worth the price of admission and very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)