I recently discovered that one of the most notable historical dramas of the 1960s had somehow managed to escape my eye for over forty years. It’s a highly honored film (winner of six Academy Awards in 1966, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor) with a wonderfully talented cast, a fantastic screenplay, and a fascinating historical figure as its subject. And yet it’s a movie I had never seen – until last month, that is, when I watched a Netflix copy of it.
The film: A Man for All Seasons, starring Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw, and John Hurt; directed by Fred Zinneman; and written by Robert Bolt. A wonderfully acted, historically accurate, and moving account of the life of one of the great men in English history: Sir Thomas More, English lawyer, scholar, statesman… and a victim of the wrath of King Henry VIII.
A Man for All Seasons is Robert Bolt’s beautiful screen adaptation of his own highly successful and award-winning stage play of the same name. It’s a reasonably accurate accounting of the events of the last years of Sir Thomas More’s life. Our story begins with Sir Thomas being summoned to court by the fat and aging Cardinal Wolsey (played by Orson Welles in one of his last movie roles), then Chancellor of England. More must answer for his opposition to King Henry’s proposed divorce from Catherine of Aragon and remarriage to Anne Boleyn.
King Henry VIII especially wants Sir Thomas’s approval for his divorce and marriage. The royal court now begins a zealous campaign to get More to change his mind. Thomas Cromwell (played by Leo McKern, of Masterpiece Theater’s Rumpole of the Bailey fame), one of the King’s secretaries, attempts to pressure More through trumped up charges of bribery. Sir Thomas is repeatedly summoned to court in the middle of the night and questioned about his beliefs. Even Sir Thomas’s closest friend, the Duke of Norfolk, attempts to convince Sir Thomas to acquiesce. Finally, Parliament passes an act requiring all Englishmen to take an oath of loyalty to the King “as head of the church in England.” But Sir Thomas More stands fast upon his principles. He will not budge.
The rest is history. Watch the film to see with what great dignity and honor Sir Thomas More confronts his King, his accusers and, ultimately, death itself.
A Man for All Seasons is one of the finest historical dramas I’ve ever seen. The acting is simply superb throughout. Paul Scofield imbues the character of Sir Thomas More with just the right amount of pious reserve combined with a self-assured, keen intellect. Robert Shaw brings a slim, youthful, and uncouth vigor to the part of King Henry VIII. It was easy for me to imagine Henry just as he was portrayed by Shaw. And Leo McKern is deliciously malevolent as the sycophantic, insidiously conniving Thomas Cromwell.
Robert Bolt’s Academy Award-winning screenplay fairly crackles throughout the movie’s two hour running time. Although there’s precious little action, the dialogue is brisk and commands the viewer’s attention. It’s beautifully eloquent as well.
A Man for All Seasons is a historical drama with a deeper message: how do we human beings reconcile our core values and principles with outward pressures to conform to society’s rules? In Sir Thomas More’s case, we find a deeply religious man confronted with the greatest dilemma of his life. All his life he’s been taught to be loyal to both his God and to his King. Until King Henry’s divorce and remarriage, it seemed that these two loyalties were completely compatible. Yet, when they came into conflict, More made a choice that seemed relatively easy. His faith in God, always unshakable, took primacy over the demands of his King.
When put to the test, first choices – especially when they’re easy on the surface – frequently become the source of our greatest trials. This was never truer than it was for Sir Thomas More! Unremitting pressure was placed on him to cease his opposition to the King. He was deprived of his wealth; held up to public ridicule; falsely accused of wrongdoing; and imprisoned for his beliefs. While in prison, he was deprived of his books, pen, and paper. His family importuned him to change his mind. Yet this tower of integrity never wavered from what he knew was the correct course of action. Even his words to his executioner were those of a man steadfast in his values and principles.
Great lessons, these – especially nowadays, when our values and principles seem all too easily compromised by a society that demands that we “fit in,” “look good,” and “be cool.” Yet, as A Man for All Seasons so eloquently teaches us, there have been, down through history, men and women who have served to remind us of that higher call to follow a deeper, nobler set of values and principles.
People like Sir Thomas More… scholar, statesman, and martyr to his faith.