My blunt response for 1966’s A Man for All Seasons is that it’s a great movie. The Academy voters seemed to agree with me back then because it was the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards that year. The movie appealed to me because of a variety of reasons. I love the history background, and I learned some things about a time period I’m not too familiar with. Quite frankly, not many people know much about the events during the 15th and 16th centuries, and the topic of this movie is a major event. The film is about a man named Sir Thomas More who died because he believed in his principles on how to live a Catholic life, and unfortunately those principles clashed with the ideas of England’s ruling figure, King Henry VIII. I also loved the performances in the film, especially from Paul Scofield who delivered an immense, emotional performance as More. Like all films trying to recapture the time period, I loved the look of the film. They seemed to have caught the basic grasp of what England looked like in the 1500’s. Finally, the themes are worth watching this movie. It shows that a person should not be afraid to speak their beliefs, even if that results in persecution. The theme has always existed in reality and even more so in today’s world with political beliefs, racial beliefs, and even sexual beliefs.
To delve into the historical background of the movie is the same as describing the plot of the film so here goes. Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is a very popular figure in England. The chancellor has a loving family which includes his wife, Alice (Wendy Hiller) and his daughter, Margaret (Susannah York). His king, King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) is determined to break from the Roman Catholic Church because he wants to divorce his wife and remarry a different woman. More disagrees with the king’s decision, and he respectfully resigns his chancellor post in hopes to live his life out as a private citizen. But the King has other ideas, and he wants a public announcement from More saying he agrees with the King. But More refuses, and his silence may be his biggest punishment of all. But also his silence shows that it can sometimes be louder than words.
Fred Zinnemann’s feature has excellent performances all across the board. In researching the making of the film, I discovered that the director, Zinnemann had to fight to get Paul Scofield to play Sir Thomas More. The producers originally feared he wasn’t a big enough name for the general audience. It is a good thing they changed their mind because Scofield delivered the performance of the decade, and he had previous acting experience as the chancellor. He originally played More in plays at London’s West End and on Broadway, earning him the Tony Award. Scofield went on to win an Academy Award for his portrayal of More. I enjoyed Robert Shaw’s colorful performance as King Henry VIII. Some people say he overacts at time by screaming. It’s true that Shaw screamed often in his limited screentime, but that was how the King acted in real life. Wendy Hiller does a fine job as More’s loving wife who is also suffering due to her husband’s silence. This film also opened the eyes of the pubic to John Hurt, who was an unknown at the time. Hurt played Rich, an assistant of Thomas More but later on double-crossed him. Orson Welles delivers a brief, but good performance as Cardinal Wolsey, the head cardinal of England.
I really enjoyed watching the film and see all these fine performances take shape. The second half of the film is emotional. Those who knows their history knows that More was executed for his beliefs. His execution doesn’t take place on the screen, but the persecution More faces due to his silence is heartbreaking. Back then, people were not given the freedom of speech or expression as we are lucky to have it today. More never objected to the king’s actions. He just never said a word and he paid the price. In a sense, he was seen as a martyr. He could be one of the main influences on why humans today have the right to speak their mind.
As a biography film, I am happy the film only explained the final seven years of More’s life. I love biography films, but usually they tell the story from birth to death. But if a biography can focus on only a main event or two, the story is more flavorful and the filmmakers do not have to rush telling their story in the constrained time limit. This film is a good example as it struck more of an emotional chord as it singled out the event from the life of More that lead to his downfall, but led to influence of the future. We are never told of the chancellor’s duties or how he got married or what his childhood was like. Quite frankly, we do not need to know.
A Man for All Seasons is an excellent film for all the reasons I have mentioned in the review. The movie is more of a character-driven film thanks to the snappy screenplay adaptation by Robert Bolt, so do not expect much in the way of action. The screenplay is dialogue-driven, and I loved the words or in some cases, no words at all. It delivered a fresh breath of air to More and it informed modern audiences what happened 500 years ago and why it’s important to know what happen. It’s full of wonderful performances, especially the much-heralded performance of Scofield. The movie looks great, sounds great, and is just overall a great movie. Remember, never be afraid to speak your beliefs. You can believe whatever you want to believe, and that is what Sir Thomas More told the world in 1530.
“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 sometimes of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.
-Robert Whittington (1520)
My Grade: A