Man for All Seasons, A (1966)
Release Date: December 14th, 1966 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Fred Zinnemann Actors: Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, Susannah York, Nigel Davenport, John Hurt, Corin Redgrave, Colin Blakely
ardinal Wolsey (an undeniably bloated yet superbly suitable Orson Welles), who was once a mere butcher’s boy, sends for lawyer Thomas More (Paul Scofield), late in the day. More is to sail immediately from Chelsea for the king’s business, which is rumored to involve mistress Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave); Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) desperately wants a son, but Queen Catherine is barren. The red-cloaked ecclesiastic wishes to grant a divorce to the king, though More reminds him that the pope gave a special dispensation so that Henry could marry his brother’s widow in the first place; handing out another makes the church an ineffective, malleable plaything for royalty (“Salvation by the shilling,” exclaims Will Roper [Corin Regrave], who wishes to marry More’s daughter Meg [Susannah York]).
To the constant dismay of Wolsey, More possesses a “moral squint” that hinders him from doing the bidding of his superiors. More can’t be bribed and he can’t be tempted. Young, ambitious statesman Richard Rich (John Hurt), however, is just the sort to advance through the ranks by any means available, including working with the scheming Secretary Cromwell (Leo McKern). When Wolsey passes away, More becomes the Lord Chancellor of the Realm, forever banning him from the quiet life of which he often daydreams – and propelling him to a position with which the king must directly clash to obtain his divorce.
“He’s had his answer.” “He wants another.” “A Man for All Seasons” is a historical, biographical costume drama, full of grand sets and a grander wardrobe. At its heart, however, it’s primarily about faith; it is, in fact, infuriatingly so. Written by Robert Bolt from his play, and using the same eloquent, poetic dialogue, the film examines the lengths one will go to maintain faith. Some beliefs shift with the wind or with powerful figures, while More’s can’t be swayed, even under unimaginable pressures. While it would be admirable, particularly as a character study in opposition of the excommunicated or the heretics, the basis in religion prevents his cause from being universally laudable. Rather than doing what is right, he sticks strictly to doing what is best for the church’s image, even though his initial silence concerning the divorce is intended to protect his family. Fortunately, the complementary aspects of laws versus his religious objections are brilliantly – even comedically – disputed.
Scofield is exceptional in the lead – an incorruptible soul determined not to give in to an authority that challenges the stance of his pope (or the mere Bishop of Rome) – or his own personal distastes, as he eventually concedes. His screen presence is alternately momentous, menacing, and severe, with speeches and mannerisms that perfectly exude the confidence and conviction and intelligence appropriate for the role. The Shakespearean scripting, of course, helps considerably. Like his turn in “Touch of Evil,” the oversized, growling Welles is a wonderfully visual villain to match, even if he barely lasts through the first half-hour. Shaw is also unforgettable as the roaring, impetuous, selfish, conceited ruler, who manages to be scary even while he’s bellowing with joy; meanwhile, McKern is a proper bully of a henchman.
On the technical front, Ted Moore’s cinematography irritatingly switches between characters running from what looks like dusk straight into midday, to crystal clear forested vistas; lengthy sequences occasionally betray the stage origins of the story; and the finale is oddly abrupt, as if the filmmakers’ couldn’t conceive of a more poignant parting shot or of more potent verbal coda. But the scrutinizations on consciences, fellowship, blind obedience, coercion, perjury, and moral firmness are profound, taking notes from – or lending to – such masterpieces as “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ben-Hur,” and “Braveheart,” as well as so many other works that feature heroes of meritoriously unyielding principles.
– Mike Massie