Throughout 2016, there was no film that I thought about more often than “A Man for All Seasons,” which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. It might seem odd to compare a stagey period drama to a turbulent and bizarre election, but while the two have aesthetic differences, both debate the balance between principle and power, resistance and civil obedience. 16th Century language and dress disguise what a brutal and violent political struggle between an ordinary man and his unpredictable, hedonistic king.
Paul Scofield dominates the screen in his career-defining role of Thomas More. Commanding, dignified, witty, and winsome, Scofield’s More is one of the most fascinating and complicated virtuous characters in all cinema. He’s even more striking now, in light of the current trend towards anti-heroes.
Thomas More, lawyer, novelist, chancellor, is best known to history as a prominent opponent of King Henry VIII’s break from the Church of Rome. At the beginning of “A Man for All Seasons,” More is a statesman and an intellectual celebrated throughout Europe. His opposition to Henry’s plans causes the king a great deal of political harm. Henry is determined to win his errant chancellor’s support, bringing to bear all the force of the state. More is equally determined not to yield.
In the film, the slim, dark-haired Scofield contrasts markedly with the bombastic, gold-clad Robert Shaw as Henry VIII. Shaw plays a good-natured monarch, but his cheeriness belies how dangerous and vindictive the king can be, especially when backed by his vicious right hand man, Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). Instead of presenting outright defiance, More takes refuge in “the thickets of the law.” It is not the government’s role to legislate morality, he claims. A man’s conscience is beyond the jurisdiction of his king.
Characters debate these issues with sparkling and sharp dialogue. Screenwriter Robert Bolt chose a religious story not because he agreed with its characters’ beliefs (he was an atheist), but because he saw in the story of Thomas More a universal tale of a man defending his conscience against the state.
More’s entire identity is built on his beliefs. If he denies his principles, he will have destroyed a vital part of himself. He tells his daughter, “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
As the film progresses, the state becomes more and more lawless in its pursuit of More, and can only capture him by committing perjury, breaking its own rules to do so.
Supporting characters flesh out a solid cast. The late John Hurt gives a moving performance as Richard Rich, a conflicted young lawyer who struggles to suppress his own ambition. Other standouts include Wendy Hiller as More’s lower class wife and Orson Welles in a brief cameo as Cardinal Wolsey.
Ultimately, “A Man for All Seasons” comes down to a central theme: the importance of the individual conscience. The film is a startling apologetic for religious and ideological freedom, for the right of a man to live free from state-imposed morality. “I’d give the devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake,” More says, stating the thesis of the film. It’s a message as timely today as it was in the 1960s.
– Hannah Long