That film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1967, is about the life and career of Thomas More from 1529 to his execution in 1535. The court of King Henry VIII produced some of the most interesting figures in English history including More, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell; and a film about any one of them would and has proven to be fascinating.
Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is a courtesan to Henry VIII (Robert Shaw), notable as being the only man on his Privy Council opposing his attempts to divorce Catherine of Aragon. The film follows his succession to Lord Chancellor, and his strict Catholicism, which defies Henry’s separation from the Pope, also effecting his family’s situation and relationships.
Though I never saw Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons performed on stage, I did see productions of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych Theatre, and superbly liked them. They covered some of the same events of this film, though told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, and of course going beyond the death of More. And like those plays, this film benefits by focusing strictly on an individual. Despite the decisions of the King being the sources of conflict, Henry himself features very little into the film himself. Rather he’s usually represented by Cromwell. And he’s very notable by his absence, painting a picture of a King more concerned with pleasure than the politics and the collateral of his new edicts. But this also reflects the reality of More having less contact with him as he falls further from grace. Everything we see in the film is directly connected with More, his convictions, and attitude to the crown. Though it’s not as emphasized, his home life plays a big part, and we see its influence on him. The film is evenly paced, no scene outstays its welcome, and though the historical accuracy at times wavers by leaning too much on exulting More while vilifying other characters, it presents a fairly detailed and good account of what took place in More’s life and the greater political landscape of England at the time. There’s a clever thing too in that More’s religious beliefs and strong Catholic convictions are played down. For a long while he refuses to explain why he objects to the Oath of Supremacy, despite everyone knowing exactly why. But his refusal means he can’t legally be sentenced to death. We don’t even see him justify this to his own daughter. It makes sense but also doesn’t overstate anything. We’re aware of his convictions -he makes them clear early on when he refuses to allow the Lutheran William Roper to marry his daughter. But More was never a member of the clergy, or ordained to any significant position in the church. Those around him who were, such as Cardinal Wolsey and Archbishop Cranmer, seemed to have no such attachment to papal authority as he did. Nonetheless the film doesn’t bore us with multiple speeches about his devotion to Christ or scenes of him praying or in other acts of piety, just for the sake of exploiting his martyr status. The religious dialogue we do get is all in service of the story and character, and even in his grand speech at his trial it doesn’t necessarily portray him as right, just that this is what he believes and what he is willing to die for.
Speaking of dialogue, Robert Bolt’s screenplay, for which he won an Oscar, is very engaging. Though not quite as modern and full of character as Mantel’s novels, it gives each figure some very worthy moments. I’ve seen a few versions of the stories surrounding the rule of Henry VIII, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Norfolk more than in this film for example. More as well, is written terrifically, but it also helps to have a terrific actor in the part.
I have heard much about but seen very little of Paul Scofield. But there’s a reason for that as Scofield appeared in relatively few films, always preferring the stage where he gained a reputation as one of the great British thespians. And he certainly proves it in A Man for All Seasons. His performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. In the way he carries himself, his cadence, expression, and gravitas, he makes for a perfect More. Even just a mere reaction, such as when he’s being interrogated by Cromwell, says everything. Of course it helps that Scofield previously played this part on stage in both the West End and Broadway. But that only proves he’s gained an expertise at this character that paid off. Every moment he’s on screen I believe he’s Thomas More. I think of particular brilliance are his first meeting with Cromwell at Hampton Court, his visit with his family in the Tower, his trial (during which he delivers the wonderful line: “it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?"), and his execution complete with “I die his Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” Needless to say, Scofield deservedly won an Oscar for his performance.
But even though the film is centred on him, the ensemble around him is quite remarkable as well. If there’s a villain to this movie it would certainly be Cromwell. Though I prefer the more layered portrayal of the character in Mantel’s work, where he’s more of an anti-hero, over this fairly simple antagonist, Leo McKern is a very good performer here. As I mentioned before, I liked Norfolk quite a bit in this film. Played by Nigel Davenport, he’s a guy who maintains a respect for More until the end. And the way he often tries to meet More halfway is amusing, especially in one scene where he, Cromwell, and Cranmer are questioning him and he uses the “come on, man” approach of extracting confession. Though he doesn’t appear a lot, Robert Shaw creates a very vivid interpretation of Henry VIII, breaking into a roaring laugh after accidentally landing in mud. His scene with More at More’s estate where he “just happened” to drop by to bestow on him the Lord Chancellor title is great, and their private conversation wherein he frequently mood swings between decency, anger and bribery for More’s support is a good depiction of his true nature. In some respects he’s not all that different from Quint in Jaws. The arguable cause of all this uproar, Anne Boleyn, we only see briefly played by Vanessa Redgrave. Her brother Corin has a larger part as William Roper engaged to the beautiful Susannah York as Margaret More. York isn’t given a lot, but she does well with it. Dame Wendy Hiller plays her mother, who you could say the same of, apart from her last scene with her husband. Cyril Luckham is okay as Cranmer, and Orson Welles is obviously great, despite his screen-time as Cardinal Wolsey being very minimal before the character dies. One of the best surprises though is John Hurt, who in one of his first screen roles plays Richard Rich, a close associate of More’s who contributes heavily to his fate. Rich’s is the biggest betrayal of the movie, and Hurt is naturally fantastic as he goes from ambitious young man to Solicitor General perjuring his former master in court. It’s an ironic shame that I’m coming across so many great John Hurt performances after his death. He truly was one of the great character actors.
A Man for All Seasons may also be Fred Zinnemann’s greatest accomplishment as a director. Though he’d directed films like From Here to Eternity, High Noon, and The Nun’s Story, this is a better directed and more interestingly composed film. For one, the art direction and costume design is very clearly evocative of Hans Holbein, the sixteenth century artist who painted a number of the figures portrayed. Numerous shots are similar to the poses these figures had for him, and the costumes, particularly on More, his wife, and Henry are very deliberate replicas. Leo McKern’s resemblance to Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell may have even been instrumental in his casting. But the film is certainly not as stoic as one of those works, and some really good artistic choices shine. For example, I love how we see the seasons change through the small tower window, conveying both the passage of time and More’s isolation while imprisoned there. The inter-cutting of More at his home with Henry’s wedding that he had been obliged to attend is really good, as is the swift cut to black when the executioner’s axe strikes at the end. The ending monologue gives little histories of how each of the supporting characters died: Cromwell for treason (after arranging the King’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleeves), Cranmer was burned at the stake (during the reign of Queen Mary when she restored Catholicism), Norfolk passed rather banally the day after the King’s death, and Rich died in bed under Edward VI, whom he was Lord Chancellor to.
A Man for All Seasons is a really good dramatic telling of the life of Thomas More. It’s well-written and directed, the acting is incredible, the story and politics interesting, and it feels like a grand production despite not always looking like it. It might not be as honest as it could, taking some dramatic licence or excluding less favourable elements of More’s life, but in the end it still amounts to a great historical character study of one of English history’s most important figures.