Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is for spring, summer, and autumn—but tends to dislike winter.
"Will you forfeit all you have, including the respect of your country, for a belief?"
If you know a little bit about British history, you know that the answer at the end of A Man For All Seasons is ultimately "yes." Sir Thomas More forfeits his life to the axeman because he doesn't wish to sanction King Henry VIII's divorce.
More, canonized as the patron saint of politicians, statesmen, and lawyers in 1935, is known today as a "champion of truth and conscience in times plagued by tyranny and politicians without principles," according to the Center for Thomas More Studies site online. He was also a noted writer, best known for Utopia in 1516. As the title indicates to a modern reader, the book depicts a fictional ideal state.
In 1520, author and grammarian Robert Whittington called the saint and statesman "the man (in whom is so many goodly virtues) of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability, and as time requires, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes and sometime of steadfast gravity—a man for all seasons."
Thus, Robert Bolt used the title A Man For All Seasons as the title for his stage play, then adapted screenplay, on More's life. The movie took home six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and a Best Actor honor for Paul Scofield. As the 2007 Academy Awards ceremony draws near, Columbia Pictures has released A Man For All Seasons: Special Edition.
Facts of the Case
"The King wants a son. What are you going to do about it?"
It seems Henry VIII (Robert Shaw, Jaws) is in a lather because his wife Catherine is barren. Henry wants the Pope to grant him a divorce so he can leave Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey, also the chancellor, wants More to join him in an attempt to influence the Pope.
"Let the dynasty die with Henry VIII and we'll have dynastic wars again. Blood-witted barons ramping the country from end to end," Wolsey says.
"I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos," More responds. In other words, no. Since More's a devout Catholic, it's against his principles.
"Come down to earth. Until you do, you and I are enemies," Wolsey tells More.
Soon enough, though, Wolsey dies in disgrace and More becomes chancellor—at Wolsey's suggestion, Henry tells More after the fact. It doesn't take long for Henry to descend on More with a request for his assistance with a certain little matter that's against the new chancellor's principles. The two friends agree to disagree, and More pledges his loyalty in all other matters—until Henry declares himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, separating from the Roman church.
More resigns as chancellor, retreating to his home to read, write, and take up fishing. He thinks his silence will make him safe, but King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern, Rumpole of the Bailey) has other ideas.
A Man For All Seasons has a delicate slowness about it, with the talkiness inherent in an adapted stage play. The visual aspects are graceful, but retain that leisurely style. You'll notice it from the first scene, in which Cardinal Wolsey summons Sir Thomas More to Hampden Court, takes eight minutes of putting seals on letters, boat rides, and the like before putting More in front of the Cardinal. You might find it slow, but if you give it a chance, it has poetry to it. Even as More spends time in the Tower of London, the movie keeps moving at its glacial pace, never full of action but steadily telling its story. The Tower scenes, by the way, show More as "a man for all seasons" visually, since the changing seasons are shown through the tiny window of his cell.
As More, Paul Scofield occasionally raises his voice, but usually has a calm, measured tone, even when held in the Tower. Though not visibly powerful, his More shows his strength through an unflagging moral certainty. One will notice, however, that More relies on legal language to make his points—or obscure them from his interrogators. This allows hints of comic relief in the tense trial scene at the end. His cheief opponent here is Thomas Cromwell, played by Leo McKern as a determined, ruthless interrogator. There's a certain unintentionally amusing aspect to McKern's performance, since he later became well-known for playing two other interrogators—No. 2, who wanted to know why the Prisoner resigned, and beloved barrister Horace Rumpole. Still, McKern shows verbal deftness in the technicalities of legal sparring with More.
The most memorable performance is that of Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII, though he's only in a few scenes. When he makes his "surprise" visit to More to seek the chancellor's approval for his divorce, even his arrival is notable; those on the shore wait for reaction as the King steps from his boat into muck, then join in the hearty laughter when the King himself laughs. As he discusses his situation with More, his volatile mood shifts from calmness to rage and back again, suggesting that his attempts at divorce have put him under some genuine strain. Later, a scene in which Henry mistakenly thinks he sees his estranged friend More gives Shaw the chance to express his hurt and conflicted emotions wordlessly.
The small roles here are mostly functional—Orson Welles establishes the situation as Cardinal Wolsey, John Hurt provides the necessary betrayal as one-time friend Richard Rich, Wendy Hiller moans and fusses as the wife who doesn't understand More's martyrdom, and Nigel Davenport provides moral support as More's friend, the Duke of Norfolk.
Except for a brief night scene, the transfer comes across crisp and clean, with vivid colors as we see processions of boats, English countryside, the bright garb in Henry's court, and grand manors. The sound also comes across well, with courtly music often playing in background.
There's a short featurette, "The Life of Saint Thomas More," which fills in some of the basic blanks of the protagonist's life. Clocking in under 20 minutes, though, it barely scratches the surface. Otherwise, there's nary an original trailer, let alone commentary or other background information on the making of the movie. It would also have been interesting to hear more about how people reacted to the movie in the turbulent 1960s.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Since its attention is focused on Sir Thomas More's battle with Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII, A Man For All Seasons only briefly mentions his writings, which helped both to bring about his prosecution and to give him his place in history.
Sir Thomas More's struggle against King Henry VIII's divorce is an enduring story because of the questions it raises about morality. The movie wisely leaves the answers vague so that viewers can contemplate their own answers while watching A Man For All Seasons. Thus, the movie remains surprisingly relevant today and will probably be an enduring portrait of the debate between the individual and the nation.
If you give A Man For All Seasons your full attention, you'll be rewarded with a thoughtful movie that raises fascinating questions about morality and belief.
Not guilty. It's definitely worth forfeiting an evening to watch this one.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Life of Saint Thomas More" Featurette
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.