Rapid Response: A Man for All Seasons

Perhaps I’m not much of an anglophile, but the regal theatrics of Fred Zinnemann’s “A Man for All Seasons” merely impressed me for its poise and eloquence more than its moral gravitas. It is a strikingly compelling film with big, stage worthy performances and wide open cinematography that leaves us in awe of the deafening silence it can create. The climactic courtroom scene most of all is breathtaking for its lush, looming presence.

The film from 1966 is the story of Thomas More, the Chancellor of the Realm who famously opposed King Henry VIII’s divorce such that he could wed Anne Boleyn. The movie, as well as the play on which it is based, paints More (Paul Scofield) as a highly principled man who even has the respect of King Henry (Robert Shaw), but is simply pitted at a moral impasse against the good of the country. Much of the film follows his steadfast resolve to stay silent as to not be incriminated until he is finally brought to court and sentenced to beheading.

“A Man for All Seasons” is very much an actors’ movie. Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII is the best example, as he was pulled literally from the original stage production to play the part. We first see him leaping off his boat onto a muddy beach, and his piercing glance and his subsequent, bellowing laugh instantly indicate that this is a cheerful, adventurous, rugged and bold Renaissance Man. His heart stopping conversation with More only confirms all this. The way he speaks its as if he never left the stage.

Scofield on the other hand, who won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying More, gives a wonderful screen performance of marvelous range. He has a calming voice that is full of much conviction, force and wisdom as Henry’s, and his dramatic change of tone during his monologue in the courtroom scene is magnificent.

And yet so much of the dialogue is filled with deep semantics of oaths, obedience and conscience. The script feels dense and it feels almost too closely adapted from the play.

The film was a massive success and won six Oscars, including for Best Picture, all this despite having no stars in its cast. Orson Welles appears for a brief, but powerful, five minutes, in which Welles looks as fat, pale and close to death as he ever did in his career. Welles would be the standout Easter egg in the movie were it not for a very early performance by a young John Hurt. Hurt sports British muttonchops that make him look strikingly like Ringo Starr, but I digress.

 

2 thoughts on “Rapid Response: A Man for All Seasons”

  1. The context is important for understanding this movie’s impact on the audience of 1966. With the Vietnam War raging, More’s stand in defense of private conscience seemed to throw down a challenge to all the “Best and Brightest” who’d caved in to pressure from LBJ.

    One thing that always fascinated me about the movie was the language. Robert Bolt, the screenwriter/playwright, used a great deal of the actual 16th century English written by More and his contemporaries. Bolt edited it a bit to make it more understandable to modern audiences, but there are many speeches that are almost exactly what More and Roper wrote. Even though it was sometimes difficult to grasp at first hearing, it gave the film an organic feel and greater depth.

    1. It’s hard to think of “A Man for All Seasons” as a Vietnam War movie, but your explanation for the film’s historical context makes a lot of sense. I guess this struck me as less of a political film and more of a moral film, and maybe that’s also because this seems like one of the last Old Hollywood Best Picture winners.

      And the language too in the screenplay is admittedly wonderfully written. It has more clever banter and wordplay than some contemporary period pieces like this that are drenched in melodrama.

      Thanks for the thoughts Sue!

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