A Man For All Seasons (1966 Britain)

This piece of classic cinema is an erudite example of the old Biblical maxim: a man cannot serve two masters. Sir Thomas More, a multi-talented man of letters and law, went to the executioner’s block because he would not recognize a temporal king as head of his country’s church. Though a friend of Henry VIII, and his chancellor, he was more afraid of offending God than the king. A man who took his Catholic faith quite seriously. Robert Bolt’s play ran for 637 performances in the 1961-1963 season on Broadway and the only two who came over from the Broadway cast were Paul Scofield as More and Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell.

They present quite a contrast indeed as antagonists, Scofield the man of honor and principle and McKern as the sly intriguing Cromwell. This Cromwell was in fact the grand uncle of Oliver Cromwell and he suffered the same fate as More for finding himself out of step politically at Henry VIII’s court. That’s the way it was in court politics in Tudor England. You stayed in step with the monarch whims or the executioner shortened you a little bit. As Henry VIII, Robert Shaw does actually have reason to be concerned. The only American in the cast, Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, explains it quite clearly. It was only 40+ years since the king’s father Henry VII took the throne and reunited the York and Lancastrian claims to the crown. Previous to that for sixty years England went into a steep decline during the period known as the War of the Roses where rival factions fought for the crown. The lack of a strong male heir would guarantee such an event which was fresh in a lot of minds.

Why wouldn’t the Pope just find some ecclesiastical loophole and give who had been his ardent defender a divorce? Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon was the aunt of Emperor Charles V and his army was occupying Rome after the battle of Pavia a few years back. Catherine’s marriage to Henry put England in the Spanish orbit and he wasn’t about to let it go. The Pope was going to dance to Emperor Charles’s tune. Which still left Henry VIII with a dynastic problem. He made the complete break and said he was head of the Church in England. That is how the Anglican church came into being. Many, like More, thought this wrong and paid with their lives. Paul Scofield won Broadway’s Tony Award for playing Sir Thomas More and matched it with an Oscar for Best Actor in 1966. Scofield set a standard for playing a man willing to die for a belief. His More is a man of wit and humour, not a priggish sort.It’s what makes More such an appealing character and even non-Catholics can certainly appreciate his sacrifice. Scofield gives an awe-inspiring reality to his performance.

Besides those I’ve mentioned the cast also includes Wendy Hiller as More’s good wife, Susannah York as his daughter and Corin Redgrave as the silly son-in-law. Sister Vanessa is seen briefly as Anne Boleyn, who Henry hoped to marry in order to begat a son with her. From her point of view see “Anne of a Thousand Days” or for the whole saga see the fine BBC production of their mini-series starring Keith Mitchell as Henry VIII. Besides Scofield, my favourite character is Leo McKern. To see what a wide ranging player he was apart from being the henpecked barrister Horace Rumpole, you have to see A Man For All Seasons. He plays Thomas Cromwell every bit as slimy as he has come down to us in history. Also note the presence of a young John Hurt, who plays Richard Rich, whose perjured testimony convicts Thomas More. A Man For All Seasons is a motion picture for all seasons for plenty of reasons.

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