“If you just could see facts flat on without that moral squint. With a little common sense, you could have made a statesman.” – Cardinal Wolsey (A Man for All Seasons)
A Man for All Seasons is a 1966 drama directed by Fred Zinnemann, which is based on a play by Robert Bolt. It was the winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, as well as Best Actor for Scofield.
Bolt, who also penned the screen adaptation of his work, has quite the filmography under his belt, having written the screenplays for films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and The Mission. He won two Academy Awards for his work, one for Doctor Zhivago and another for the film I am about to review.
A Man for All Seasons is about Thomas Moore (Paul Scofield) and his conflict with King Henry VIII of England (Robert Shaw). The King wants Moore to approve his decision to divorce his wife and re-marry, using the excuse that his marriage should never have happened in the first place due to it being a sin that he married the widow of his brother. As the King says, he feels as though the constant deaths of his newborn sons by his wife are a sign from God that the marriage should end.
This presents a problem for Moore, for not only is the idea of divorce something that a God-fearing man like himself is not particularly fond of, but because the King already asked for a decree from the Vatican to approve the marriage in the first place despite it being a sin. It is one more reason that Moore feels disgusted by the whole ordeal. He keeps his silence, but nevertheless hates the way that the English royalty and rulers put national government over God’s will.
Even after Moore resigns from his position as Lord Chancellor, he is pressured to sign over his blessing to the marriage due to the strong influence he has over people all over Europe. Even his silence is seen as possible treason and most definitely dangerous to the power of the King, as Moore holds a great deal of influence over the King’s his subjects. The government and King fear that even his silence sends a strong message to many people. As one might expect, the situations collapses into a game of accusation with a goal of either getting Moore to succumb to the pressure and put aside his conscience to sign the bill, or to set an example by charging him with treason.
This is an excellent film from start to finish. Zinnemann may not have a great deal of pomp and circumstance in his directing style, but he sure knows how to make beautiful films. Even in its relative staginess the film is wonderfully directed and surprisingly colorful given the nature of the movie. Cinematographer Ted Moore rightfully won an Oscar for bringing this film to vibrant life.
Bolt’s script is absolutely electric, and manages to take a story that in lesser hands would be dull as drywall and turns it into something that is wholly gripping.
Scofield is a wonderful Thomas Moore, making him both very likable and respectable. His acting exudes a stoic kind of strength in the face of adversary launched by the state; never faltering, he is entirely believable as someone who sticks with their principles. You believe that he is a man who will never give in to the pressure of his peers and throw God under the bus of England.
That is another reason that I really enjoyed the film, and really what makes it so relevant even today. How should people cope with being made to chose between national government and God? This seems to be a question that arises frequently in contemporary society, and it is interesting to see a film released in the 1960’s about an event that happened centuries back address it with such force.
This conflict between God and country starts straight from the beginning, where the supposedly “religious” Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) criticizes Moore for not being logical and putting God above what he construed as ”rationality.” This is a Cardinal who has placed his loyalties with the state, and by doing so has all but forfeited his loyalties to God. When Wolsey lays dying in a dark dungeon-like room he proclaims that had he would be dying in a more luxurious setting had be been a better servant to God in life.
I try not to base my enjoyment or hatred of a film purely on its message or its ideology, and I hate to use the term “important” when reviewing a movie because it makes me feel as though I am parroting talking-point from the majority of critics when evaluating films based on their message as opposed to the actual quality of the film as a whole, but this is a very important film and it is masterfully crafted.
In a world that is growing increasingly secularized and hostile, where God-fearing men, women, and children must chose between the law of Earth and the law of God, this film should be seen as essential viewing. Even for those who are not religious should recognize this film with its brilliant way of illustrating one man’s struggle to stand by his beliefs when it would be so much easier to give in to the demands of the law.
A Man for All Seasons should be screened in high school and collegiate history classes right alongside Gandhi and the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan (though perhaps its lionization of a religious man will prevent it from doing so – unfortunate, but true in today’s climate). If we can justify showing the attack sequence from Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor in school, you can more than justify showing this Best Picture winner.
All of the performances were strong. Robert Shaw is great as the King, though I am still sort of on the fence over whether his performance was perhaps a bit too over the top at times. Sure I get that he is supposed to project a personality that is larger than life and arrogant, but it still seemed a bit much. That might just be me though.
Also the final big speech given by Moore prior to his sentencing, despite being strongly acted and written, seemed a bit too static with its minute-long wide shot. There probably could have been a close up so we could get a better view of his face, though again that is very much nitpicking.
A Man for All Seasons is a great film that stands for something meaningful that very well might be even more resonant now that it was when it was first released.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
P.S. Keep an eye out for a very young John Hurt in this film.