A Man for All Seasons
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Starring Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Orson Welles, Robert Shaw, Susannah York, Nigel Davenport, John Hurt, Corin Redgrave
Released on December 12, 1966
Running time: 2h
Not Rated (Suggested rating: PG for thematic elements, brief language, brief violence, and some drinking)
Genre: Historical, Drama
I was going to review this earlier and focus on another movie, but then I watched The Gallows, decided I needed to review it first for catharsis. So now I’m scrambling to write this on Thanksgiving Day. I guess this works, as this truly is a movie I am thankful for.
In the early 1530s, King Henry VIII of England wished to divorce his then-wife, Catharine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, citing Catherine’s barrenness, the debatable legitimacy of the marriage to begin with, and the need for a male hair to continue the dynasty and prevent another War of the Roses. He even appealed to the Pope. Sir Thomas More was the only member of the Privy Council to disapprove, saying that the Pope would not approve. This is when the film takes place.
More (Scofield) has some issues at home as well. First, his young ambitious steward, Richard Rich (Hurt), drawn to the allure of politics and power, pleads with More for a position at court. More, telling Rich of the corruption there, advises Rich to become a teacher. Second, a fiery young lawyer named William Roper (Redgrave) wishes to marry More’s daughter, Meg (York). Unfortunately, with More being a devout Catholic, More’s answer is “No”, as long as Roper is a Lutheran.
A length of time after the scenes with Rich and Roper and Meg, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Welles), then Lord Chancellor of England, dies, and King Henry VIII appoints More as Wolsey’s successor.
Soon after, a pre-corpulent Henry VIII (Shaw), of whom his own cohorts are afraid, makes an “impromptu” visit to More’s estate to inquire about More’s opinion on Henry’s own divorce. More, refusing to either sanction or scoff at the divorce debacle, remains unmoved and stoic as Henry’s vigorous, yet childish and inconsistent mind and speech alternates between threats, tantrums, promises of royal favor and rewards, and hatred for the Pope, his clergy, and the Church. More then drops a comment referring to Catherine as the Queen, and –
HENRY: (full-on screaming) I have no queen! (Beat.) Catherine’s not my wife! No priest can make her so! They that say she is my wife are not only liars, but traitors! Yes, traitors! That I will not brook now! Treachery, treachery, treachery! I will not brook! It maddens me! It is a deadly canker in the body politic, and I will have it out!
Henry leaves soon after.
At the embankment that More’s estate is next to, Thomas Cromwell (McKern), the king’s chief minister, knowing full well that More is less than in favor of Henry’s divorce, confronts Rich, telling him that if he has information that could damn More’s reputation, he will grant Rich a position in the court.
Roper’s religious opinions have changed considerably now that he has heard the king attack the Church; he refers to Henry as “the Devil’s minister”. Rich walks into the room, pleading for a position at court, just after More tells Roper to be more soft-spoken. More lightly refuses, and Rich leaves. Roper and More have a frank exchange of ideas, where More, knowing that Rich is about to betray him, shows his respect for the rule of law, despite him holding God to a much higher standard.
MEG: Father, that man’s bad.
MORE: There’s no law against that.
ROPER: There is: God’s law!
MORE: Then let God arrest him.
ROPER: So now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
MORE: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
ROPER: Yes! I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE: Oh? 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’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
Rich, now humiliated, joins Cromwell in his attempt to bring down More. Rich remarks that he himself has now lost his innocence.
King Henry VIII has now tired of Papal refusals, and so he breaks off from Rome, establishes the Church of England, has Parliament declare him “Supreme Head of the Church in England”, and has both bishops and Parliament renounce any and all allegiance to the Pope. This influences More to resign as Lord Chancellor. When More’s friend, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, leaves More’s estate, taking More’s relinquished Lord Chancellor medallion with him, he tries to have a friendly chat with More and draw out his true opinions on the divorce and the king’s recent actions. More rebuffs him, knowing that the time to speak openly about such matters is over.
MORE: (Initially innocent.) Have I your word that what we say here is between us two?
NORFOLK: Very well.
MORE: And if the king shall command you to repeat what I may say?
NORFOLK: I should keep my word to you.
MORE: (Now scolding.) Then what has become of your oath of obedience to the king?
NORFOLK: (Beat. Taken aback, realizes he’s been tricked.) You lay traps for me.
MORE: (No longer scolding.) No. I show you the times.
MORE: But what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not, but that I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it.
NORFOLK: Why do you insult me with this lawyer’s chatter?
MORE: Because I am afraid.
NORFOLK: Man, you’re ill. This isn’t Spain, you know. This is England. (Leaves.)
Norfolk meets with Cromwell that night, who is implying that More’s troubles will be alleviated should More attend the King’s wedding with Anne Boleyn. Cromwell brings up an accusation that More, soon before he became Lord Chancellor and was a judge, accepted a bribe. The accusation is dropped quickly, but as Norfolk leaves, this dialogue is exchanged between him and Cromwell:
CROMWELL: The king wants Sir Thomas to bless his marriage. If Sir Thomas appeared at the wedding, now, it might save us a lot of trouble.
NORFOLK: Aaaah, he won’t attend the wedding.
CROMWELL: If I were you, I’d try and persuade him. I really would try. (Beat.) If I were you.
NORFOLK (As he is about to exit.) Cromwell, are you threatening me?
CROMWELL: My dear Norfolk – this isn’t Spain. This is England.
More declines to appear at the wedding, much to the embarrassment of Henry, and so More is summoned to Hampton Court, of which Cromwell is now the head. Cromwell interrogates More on his opinions, and tells him that the king views him as a traitor, but More refuses to break, and is allowed to return home. As he leaves Hampton Court, he is confronted by Norfolk. In the name of their friendship and their own safety, More roughly breaks off the friendship, much to the anger of Norfolk.
When More returns home, Meg says to him that a new oath is now being circulated, and that all that do not take it will be charged with high treason. If it had only contained just the words relating to Henry’s new marriage, then More would have signed it. Unfortunately, the oath contains words that would name Henry the Supreme Head of the Church. More refuses to take it and is imprisoned in the tower of London.
One morning, More is interrogated by Cromwell, Norfolk, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (there’s a lot of Thomases in the sixteenth century). Despite Cranmer’s manipulations, Norfolk’s pleadings, and Cromwell’s attempted browbeating, More refuses to explain his objections to the oath.
More’s family illegally visit him, and they say heartfelt goodbyes, during which More laments that sin is more profitable than good. He also gives us this tidbit:
MORE: When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water. If he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.
More is brought to trial, where he maintains his silence regarding the marriage and the oath. Cromwell, feeling little else but hatred for More, attempts to use his silence against him, but More catches him in the act while still maintaining his silence on the subject.
CROMWELL: Now, Sir Thomas, you stand on your silence.
MORE: I do.
CROMWELL: But, gentlemen of the jury, there are many kinds of silence. Consider first the silence of a man who is dead. Let us suppose we go into the room where he is laid out, and we listen: what do we hear? Silence. What does it betoken, this silence? Nothing; this is silence pure and simple. But let us take another case. Suppose I were to take a dagger from my sleeve and make to kill the prisoner with it; and my lordships there, instead of crying out for me to stop, maintained their silence. That would betoken! It would betoken a willingness that I should do it, and under the law, they will be guilty with me. So silence can, according to the circumstances, speak! Let us consider now the circumstances of the prisoner’s silence. The oath was put to loyal subjects up and down the country, and they all declared His Grace’s title to be just and good. But when it came to the prisoner, he refused! He calls this silence. Yet is there a man in this court – is there a man in this country – who does not know Sir Thomas More’s opinion of this title?
COURT GALLERY CROWD: No!
CROMWELL: Yet how can this be? Because this silence betokened – nay, this silence was not silence at all, but most eloquent denial!
MORE: Not so. Not so, Master Secretary. The maxim is “qui tacet consentire”. The maxim of the law is “silence gives consent”. If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.
CROMWELL: Is that in fact what the world construes from it? Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it?
MORE: The world must construe according to its wits. This court must construe according to the law.
Richard Rich, now Attorney General for Wales, is brought forth to testify. Rich perjures himself, saying that More told him that he could not take the oath because Parliament had not the power or competence to make the King the Head of the Church. The court buys it, and in their eyes, this constitutes treason. More is convicted.
More, now having nothing left to lose, breaks his silence. And it is brilliant to watch, showing just what a magnificent man More is, and how incredible of an actor Paul Scofield is.
MORE: Since the Court has determined to condemn me, God knoweth how, I will now discharge my mind concerning the indictment and the King’s title. The indictment is grounded in an act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the law of God, and His Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which no temporal person may by any law presume to take upon him. This was granted by the mouth of our Savior, Christ Himself, to Saint Peter and the Bishops of Rome whilst He lived and was personally present here on earth. It is, therefore, insufficient in law to charge any Christian to obey it. And more to this, the immunity of the Church is promised both in Magna Carta and in the king’s own coronation oath.
The court is in uproar.
CROMWELL: Now we plainly see that you are malicious!
MORE: (Beat.) (Quietly, resignedly, ruminatively.) Not so. I am the king’s true subject, and I pray for him and all the realm. I do none harm. I say none harm. I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith, I long not to live. (In a sudden burst of scorn and anger.) Nevertheless, it is not for the Supremacy that you have sought my blood, but because I would not bend to the marriage!
More is condemned to death by beheading.
At Tower Hill, More addresses the witnesses.
MORE: I am commanded by the king to be brief, and since I am the king’s obedient subject, brief I will be. I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.
He then turns to the executioner.
MORE: I forgive you right readily. (Beat.) Be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.
CRANMER: You’re very sure of that, Sir Thomas?
MORE: He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to Him.
More places his neck on the chopping block. The executioner grabs his nasty-looking axe from under some straw, raises it, and brings it down, decapitating More. The screen goes black the instant the thump is heard.
NARRATOR: Thomas More’s head was stuck on Traitors’ Gate for a month. Then his daughter, Margaret, removed it and kept it till her death. Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More.
Serves him right. He finally got his comeuppance.
NARRATOR: The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason, but the king died of syphilis the night before.
When my family watched this movie for the first time, we laughed at this line, as Henry VIII had a very…interesting history.
NARRATOR: Richard Rich became Chancellor of England and died in his bed.
Some facts that must be mentioned first.
First. The church and its clergy back then did not always represent the will of its people or God.
Second. England’s government was, despite claiming to be representative of God on earth, was far removed from God’s laws. It was a state informed by faith but not run by the church.
Third. The king’s word was essentially law in those days. Yes, there was Parliament, with its Houses of Commons and Lords, but it almost always was a vehicle for the king’s whims. Also, you either sided with the king or you were executed.
Fourth. Thomas More’s beliefs have little to absolutely nothing to do with the Marxist definitions of socialism or communism. Neither of those two societogovernmental ideologies have any room for religious belief, any ideas of rebellion against the ruling authority, or, well, any thoughts whatsoever.
A Man for All Seasons was adapted by Robert Bolt from his own play. It was very literate and careful to explain the facts of More’s dilemma. He abandoned the Brechtian devices used in his play, such as eliminating the character of the “Common Man”, the narrator. By the way, Bolt was not a Catholic – he was agnostic. He didn’t write his play to spew Catholic propaganda. He saw More as a man of conscience and integrity who remained true to his principles even when threatened with death.
This is a movie that is in serious danger of being forgotten, despite it winning Best Picture at its year’s Oscars.
As just a movie rather than recorded history, and a fascinating examination of moral and ethical issues, it’s still fantastic.
The music sounds like it was taken right from the time period.
The play, and in turn the movie, was historically accurate.
Each part feels like it was written for each actor. More for Scofield, Henry VIII for Shaw, Cromwell for McKern, Rich for Hurt, and heck, even Wolsey for Welles.
Even its script is very well written. More’s and Cromwell’s verbal jousting in particular.
The acting is phenomenal, and encompasses a very wide range. Scofield for being dignified and restrained but quietly forceful, McKern using his lines to project how much of a bastard his character is, and Shaw for his over the top screaming that embodies the emotional range of the mentally and emotionally unstable Henry VIII perfectly. Heck, Shaw even looks the part…at least before Henry’s corpulent days. Shaw really had quite a future ahead of him, with him taking on the role of the slimy and slithery yet tough, stoic, and no-nonsense Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and also the grizzled sea veteran Quint in Jaws. I’ve already reviewed Jaws, but I must say that I cannot recommend The Taking of Pelham One Two Three enough. It’s a fantastic thriller. Not the very ho-hum remake, but the ‘70s original.
And the cinematography is incredible as well. The costumes were perfectly designed to match that. They match the time period and the cinematography’s very beautiful and soft look and focus. The cinematography even evolves as the movie progresses and More’s situation becomes more hopeless; there are more grays and browns than reds, blues, yellows, and greens.
Even some of the subplots are magnified by their gravitas and their actors. For example, Norfolk getting caught in between his duty to England and his friendship with More. Richard Rich’s fall from innocent, kind, and likable to selfish, dishonest, and a serious turncoat. Even Cardinal Wolsey, with his putting of pragmatism before faith being his undoing, and his dying regretting that he did not serve God as well as he had the king.
But More is the true show-stopper here. I personally regard him as one of the greatest heroes in cinema. Putting God before Man, but still believing in the goodness of Man. With Henry’s divorce, remarriage, and break with Rome, More is unwilling to go along with such heresy. But Henry will accept nothing less than More’s approval. When the oath is sent around, More’s refusal to sign had nothing to do with the remarriage. It was about the king wishing to become sovereign over the Church of England and its people, and More’s right to remain silent regarding this supremacy. Speaking of his silence, More is not going to tell anyone but himself, as doing so would compromise the trustworthiness of whoever he tells in the eyes of the English government, King, Parliament, and courts. All that More has done is refuse to sign the document recognizing Henry VIII as head of the Church and refuse to give his reasons. Today, that might seem like blind, naïve devotion to a primitive church and its archaic dogma, but More knew that by signing the document and taking the oath, he would lose all of his religious integrity in the eyes of God, and receive everlasting damnation. (Note: I have absolutely no say in what is required to warrant damnation.) The document would be placing the laws and authority of man over the laws and authority of God. More refused to surrender his conscience to the edicts of his king and countrymen, being unyielding in zeal to God and Church, being uncompromising in his personal principles of faith.
More is a marvel of intricacies, being a ductile fist of steel wearing a velvet glove, a somehow placid lion. He tries at every turn to do what he feels is right, even when his political understanding knows how dangerous that can be in a time when the sinful are prosperous and the decent are in poverty. He knows every angle of the law, but he never exploits the loopholes. He respects the law too much for that, seeing the law as the only hope for man’s goodness. He never exploits the law for his own personal use, even when he knows he is being conspired against. And finally, when he has nothing left to lose, when he weighs himself, his family, his nation, his king, and his God against each other, which one does More choose to confide in in his final days? More chose God, and so will I.
The movie takes the opportunity to explore More’s identity. In a way, it doesn’t exactly do so in the way you’d expect. It tiptoes around More’s religious beliefs rather than identifying with them, and instead highlights what Robert bolt called More’s “adamantine sense of his own self”. It values More’s humanity as well as his spirituality.
It’s an scholarly examination of the Biblical adage: no man can serve two masters; no man can serve God and Mammon. It’s one of filmdom’s finest for the ethical and moral issues it raises.
Sir Thomas More was eventually canonized and made the patron saint of lawyers and politicians. They certainly seem to need one.
Robert Whittington wrote of More: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A Man for All Seasons.” (Italics added.)
Truly he was.
God rest his soul.
Final Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars.