Zinnemann's adaptation of the Robert Bolt play remains an all time masterpiece. He tells a quiet story of faith, courage and steadfastness that is so missing today. It portrays the life and death of Sir Thomas More, a prominent member of the court of English King Henry VIII. Grounded in historical fact, this movie vividly tells the story of More's stand against the king's betrayal of the law of God - a stand that would cost him dearly.

When the Catholic King Henry VIII sought to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, so he could instead marry Anne Boleyn, his will was opposed by the Roman papacy as being repugnant to the clear teachings of scripture. Rather than submit, Henry chose to rebel by having Parliament pass a law to establish the Church of England and declare Henry the head of it. In order to legitimise his claim to this new title, however, Henry needed the support of his members of state, not the least of which was Thomas More.

In a brilliant performance, Paul Scofield depicts Thomas in his steadfast assertion of integrity and conscience toward the law of God. His chief accusers are repeatedly confounded at Thomas' evasion of their clever snares and manipulations, designed at first to gain More's cooperation but later to get him to incriminate himself. Cromwell and the others ultimately are forced to resort to perjury, corruption, and a kangaroo court to ‘convict’ Thomas of the crime of high treason, and to eliminate him as the last obstacle to King Henry's ambitions. Schofield as More is magnificent, combining a stoical adherence to truth on the one hand, with a dry wit on the other, and this is an accuracy of depiction that could not have been drawn from the words of the script.

 

Films such as this are rare today; 'A Man for All Seasons' turns not on action sequences, battles past or present or on a love affair. It is neither a comedy nor a tragedy in the classic sense. In a word, it would seem to have little to recommend it - however, it is one of the best film ever produced. The director Fred Zimmermann resisted the urge to provide orchestral music as a background to many of the scenes; indeed, through much of the film, there is no music at all, as the drama itself carries the weight of the narrative and atmosphere. The cinematographer, Ted Moore, as well as the director received Academy Awards for their work.


This is an actor's film, the force of the drama being driven by their performances. Exceptional acting by John Hurt, Leo McKern, Nigel Davenport and Robert Shaw enhance lead actor Paul Scofield's Oscar-winning portrayal. In the end, the church won out -- as More said at his execution, 'I remain the King's good subject, but God's first.'

Robert Shaw's Henry VIII presents the mood swings and apparent callousness toward human values reflecting the common judgment of his reign in traditional history. Shaw displays a fine villain, but can touch only lightly the complexity of Henry's position in Reformation England. Bolt's screenplay denies Shaw the scope he might have used in depicting Henry's burdens.

 

 

Hurt and McKern portray Richard Rich and Thomas Cromwell, schemers and social climbers of which royal courts are always full. Nigel Davenport as the friend who becomes an enemy, himself turned by the political tides, is also effective. The roles of More's wife Alice (Wendy Hiller) and daughter Meg (Susannah York) are admirably played. Alice as the illiterate yet intelligent wife of More is concerned for the family's well-being; Meg as the educated daughter (More's experimental school practiced, generations ahead of its time, gender equality in education) almost steals the scene from Shaw at one point.


The message is unmistakable -- that in an age of moral and ethical relativism, sometimes one must gamble all, even one's life, to cling to integrity - and ultimately one's own soul. This parable is sorely needed in our own day. We must leave the last word to Sir Thomas himself. Towards the end of the film More asks to see chain of office that Richard Rich was given to perjure himself and betray More. After examining it and being told that Sir Richard was made the Attorney General of Wales More says,

 

‘Richard, it profits a man nothing to trade his soul for the whole world, but for Wales ...’