Rating: 2½ stars (out of 4)
A Man for All Seasons (1966): Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Written by: Robert Bolt. Based upon his play of the same name. Starring: Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Robert Shaw, and Orson Welles. Unrated. Running time: 120 minutes.
The Academy may have tired of musicals for a change, choosing to embrace another passion: the period piece. Based upon the Tony-winning play, the film represents the righteous man who conducts himself with dignity at all times, a popular Academy theme.
King Henry VIII of England has his sights on divorcing his barren wife and shacking up with Ann Boleyn. Only one man opposes his action—Sir Thomas More, a lawyer/philosopher and top advisor to the king, whose conscience demands he reject the king’s unlawful break from the Catholic Church. More endures threats and obstacles to his persistence, but he never sells himself out.
Authored by the same man who co-authored Lawrence of Arabia, the film largely celebrates More as a man who went to his grave with a clean conscience. Playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt populates his political portrait with questions about moral adherence. As filmed by director Zinnemann, however, the scenes play out one-sided. The film doesn’t delve deep into what drives More’s obstinacy, or the negative after-effects on his family and himself. As such, it feels more like a morality tale than a complex character study.
Still, Paul Scofield as More never fails to captivate, bringing class and stern conviction to the solitary man. His face and diction bristle with force and clarity. And Robert Shaw amuses with his interpretation of Henry VIII as a petulant man-child. If only More’s antagonists had deepened our understanding of his choice—just because More is a man of conscience, is he necessarily flawless? The movie only hints at a possible paradox.
A Man for All Seasons boasts some great production values and intriguing ideas about what it means to stick to one’s guns. Perhaps the film translation drained the original material of life its vibrancy—here the battles of wit and conscience seem hermetically sealed.
Next film: In the Heat of the Night, 1967