A Man For All Seasons is a Classic for Many Reasons

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Columbia Pictures, Rated G, 122 minutes, in Technicolor

A Man for All Seasons ruled at the 1966 Oscars. It won in six categories, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor. As for the last of these, Paul Scofield’s performance is one of the finest subtle but powerful performances you will ever see on the screen. This film, though 53 years old, remains thought provoking and fresh.

The title is ironic. It references its main character, Sir Thomas More (Scofield), the Lord Chancellor of England during part of King Henry VIII’s reign. More (1478-1535) is a towering intellect, and a man of dignity, duty, and conscience. He is what one would wish a politician to be: witty, scholarly, and incorruptible. (He was a local magistrate before becoming Lord Chancellor and thus charged with administering the king’s court and acting as his main advisor.) Alas, More is caught up in a world in which sycophants and scoundrels give primacy to desire, self-interest, and power.

More is probably best remembered as the author of Utopia and is often credited with inventing that word. Modern readers often fail to grasp that Utopia is a satire, not a political or social blueprint. More fashioned the word from two Greek roots that translate “not a place,” or “nowhere.” In other words, utopia is how the world should be but isn’t. It parallels More’s travails as a politician who ought to be a role model but isn’t.

The film covers the final six years of More’s life (1529-35). Henry VIII assumed the throne in 1509, and wedded Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess who was the widow of Henry’s older brother. Given that Henry’s family, the Tudors, were recent usurpers of the throne, a male heir to secure the Tudor line was of the utmost importance. Catherine endured seven pregnancies, but suffered four miscarriages, and two other children–including the presumptive heir–died in childhood. Only one, Elizabeth,* survived into adulthood.

By the late 1520s, Henry (Robert Shaw) began to look for ways out of his marriage, which wasn’t easy. England was a Catholic nation and both the English clergy and the pope rejected Henry’s specious argument that his marriage should be annulled as he had sinned by marrying his brother’s widow. He also ran afoul of his own Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. We come in on Wolsey as he is under house arrest for treason and tries to convince More that he should look the other way to Henry’s machinations for the good of himself and his family. Orson Welles plays Wolsey as a Machiavellian schemer–which he was–and summons plenty of the misanthropic arrogance for which Wolsey was known. His is a bombastic performance, as is Robert Shaw’s as Henry. Shaw–best known for his role in Jaws–is actually a bit over-the-top. Welles’ screen time drips with acid, and Shaw’s with shouting. In Shaw’s defense, history generally views Henry as prone to alternating bouts of cajolery and browbeating, mannerisms consistent with bipolar disorder. Still, Shaw is a bit much.

While raising the volume gets attention, it is Scofield’s quiet power that grips us. Wolsey died in 1530–just a few months before Henry would have had him executed, but on his deathbed. In the film, a spying Thomas Cromwell** (Leo McKern) overhears More’s remarks that Cromwell was too corrupt to be chancellor. It was More who was destined to wear the chain of office, though it lasted less than three years. Henry had his way, divorced Catherine, married Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave), and abolished Catholic rule in England by declaring the king–not the pope–as the head of a now-Protestant England. At each turn, Henry tried to convince More to give even lukewarm approval.

More was such a serious Catholic that he even forbade his daughter Margaret (a vivacious and spirited Susannah York) to marry free-thinking lawyer William Roper (Corin Redgrave) until he converted to Catholicism. So how does a man of such principle respond to corruption and assaults on his own values? More’s attempt was unique. To those close to him, he gave his best counsel. He tried, for instance, to convince obsequious Richard Rich (John Hurt in first major role) that he should be a teacher to avoid the temptations he knew would overwhelm him. He also confided in close friend Thomas Howard (Nigel Davenport), the Duke of Norfolk, and staged an overheard disagreement with Howard to protect him. Then More chose silence; he never spoke for or against Henry. More kept private counsel though all around–including his confused but imperious wife Alice (Wendy Hiller)­–urged him just to give in. Schofield presents us with a classic moral dilemma: What would you do if a superior orders you to do things that strike at the very core of your deepest beliefs?

Schofield’s performance is astonishing. Seldom has a screen actor stirred such a silent tempest. His Thomas More is a portrait of determination, virtue, and conviction. He doesn’t speak truth to power; he tries to ignore power. In an ideal world More would be a philosopher king; in his own, alas, Henry was king and the baser aspects of humankind circled around his court like buzzards at a fresh kill.

A Man for All Seasons earned its status as a film classic. Ted Moore won one of the film’s Oscars for his cinematography. Like the Technicolor in which this was shot, his frames are vivid, crisp, and like landscape paintings come to life. All of the actors (with the possible exception of Shaw) are fabulous. It’s because A Man for All Seasons was a play before it was a film and each of those chosen for the latter was a veteran of the British stage. Fred Zinnemann won some hardware for his direction, but with a cast like this, it’s hard to go wrong.

Rob Weir

*One of history’s great ironies is that Elizabeth ultimately came to the throne and became one of England’s most powerful monarchs. She also never married, hence the Tudor line died with her.
 ** Thomas Cromwell should not be confused with 17th century English Civil War Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, though they were related. Oliver was the great-grandson of Thomas’s brother Richard.


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