A Man for All Seasons (1966)

When it’s on: Monday, 22 June (3.15 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The BBC is showing two films involving King Henry VIII this week. On Saturday, we had the splendid Henry VIII and his Sixth Wives, which is rollicking good fun though possibly a little too fast paced to give us anything other than a whistle-stop tour of the king and his various spouses. That isn’t an accusation one can level at A Man for All Seasons, the excessively talky Oscar winner that focuses on one character’s downfall. Starting life as a successful West End and Broadway play, its writer Robert Bolt adapted his own script for the screen, whilst its star, Paul Scofield, was chosen to reprise his turn as Sir Thomas More for the cameras, over considered alternatives with the calibre of Richard Burton, Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier.

Director Fred Zinnemann was attached to the project from the start, and championed its cause against the studio, Colombia, which expressed doubts over the audience’s desire to watch two hours of people in Tudor costumes talking to each other, without the spice of action or love scenes. They needn’t have worried. A Man for All Seasons was a major success both critically and with cinema-goers, earning a massive profit on its $2 million outlay and claiming six Academy Awards. Following it, historical films worried less about supplying thrills and became more literary efforts, including the superior The Lion in Winter.

It isn’t difficult to see the appeal of the subject matter. Henry VIII was clearly a monarch who had an interesting life, with episodes from his life being adapted for the screen even now (with The Tudors and the brilliant Wolf Hall). Larger than life, lavish and sometimes despotic, there’s no end of material to work with, from Charles Laughton enjoying his banquet food without cutlery in The Private Life of Henry VIII, to Sid James playing up the king’s womanising ways in Carry on Henry. In A Man for All Seasons, he’s played by Robert Shaw. He wasn’t the first choice, the studio attempting initially to hire Peter O’Toole, but he was a good one. Shaw plays Henry as a powerhouse, almost a force of nature – More’s first sight of him in the film is when he’s stood before the sun, making the other characters back off and squint. Everything revolves around Henry, and he knows it, whether that’s marching around with court sycophants scurrying in his wake or making demands of people that they need to meet, regardless of personal wishes, because he’s the king.

The film’s plot turns on a single point of principle. Sir Thomas, Lord Chancellor of England after the death of Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles), is asked along with everyone else to approve Henry’s resolution to divorce his wife, Catherine, and marry Anne Boleyn. Whereas the rest of the court votes with their heads – their wish to keep them, at any rate – and swallows any personal misgivings to remain in favour, More’s a good Catholic and, conscience stricken, remains silent on the matter. Henry’s furious and storms out of the More home, back to his boat and leaving courtiers in his wake. There’s a sense of Sir Thomas already shifting out of the sunlight, with enemies lining up to attack him, led by an oily Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). From here, it’s a steady but inevitable slide to his date with the chopping block.

A Man for All Seasons is a beautifully photographed piece of work. Zinnemann seems obsessed with the English weather to the point it nearly becomes a character in the film, moments like Henry’s anger rising that coincides with a beautiful summer’s day becoming stormy. I love the way people get about on the rivers, Henry on his opulent royal vessel whilst Sir Thomas, like everyone else, has to employ boatmen to ferry him to and from his home.

As this is told from More’s perspective, there’s a skewed characterisation of other figures from the time that’s quite deliberate. McKern’s Cromwell is an opportunistic nasty piece of work, far removed from the considered and thoughtful portrayal by Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall. John Hurt, who sadly has recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, appears in an early role as Richard Rich, beginning as Sir Thomas’s man and ultimately betraying him. As the film progresses, there’s a sharp contrast between More’s plain clothes and the rest of the court, all wearing big ‘H’ signs on their attire to make clear their loyalties. Welles as the doomed Wolsey is outstanding in little more than a cameo, looking perfectly the part and conveying the character’s illness with what appears to be visible discomfort and red eyes (which he achieved using eye drops).

At the centre of it all is Paul Scofield of course, putting in one of his infrequent screened acting performances – he preferred the stage – to produce a really convincing example of stoic wisdom. Whereas other characters fall in with Henry instantly, Sir Thomas demurs, which comes across as a reason for the king favouring him, but ultimately does for him. He remains the same throughout, even when he’s imprisoned within the Tower in increasingly cramped cells, losing his books and left with nothing but his thoughts and his wits, which are considerable.

It’s not a favourite of mine; I prefer the aforementioned The Lion in Winter all told, I think because it contains more passion over the staid religious debates of A Man for All Seasons, also perhaps because Henry VIII has been done to death. That said, it’s certainly up there with the best of them, a serious and sober study of the king as a tyrant figure and his principled servant. A Man for all Seasons is on the Vatican’s list of 45 Great Films as an example of Catholic martyrdom. Sir Thomas More became St Thomas More in 1886, and 22 June is celebrated within the General Roman calendar in memory of him and other English martyrs.

A Man for All Seasons: ****

PS. The second edition of Multitude of Movies is out now (use the link to visit its site and hopefully buy a copy). Like the first, it’s stuffed with great pieces, including some articles on films that I really love – the retrospective of The Vikings contains a stack of background information and is brilliant reading for fans of the movie. I contributed to this one, offering some thoughts on Ealing’s superb wartime propaganda picture, Went the Day Well?, and I’ve already committed to the next issue with a look at The Third Man, quite possibly my favourite all-time picture. Finding something fresh and original to say about that one, and not dissolving into a gushing mess, will take some doing. Please support.

High Noon (1952)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 April (11.30 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I’ve said before on these pages that I came pretty late to the Westerns party. In an effort to catch up, I scoured the ‘top’ lists and sought out the greatest offerings from the genre, a pretty tall order because everyone has their own individual favourites, but as far as I’m concerned anyone who puts the effort into writing about films they’ve especially enjoyed deserve to have them seen by others and that’s just what I’ve tried to do. From list to list, certain titles invariably come out on top again and again, and High Noon is one of them. This 1952 offering, directed by Fred Zinneman and starring Gary Cooper, was one of the big winners at the Academy Awards, inexplicably losing the Best Picture accolade to The Greatest Show on Earth, but handing Best Actor to Cooper whilst it also won in the editing and music categories.

So I’ll just put it out there right now – since watching High Noon, it has clearly become my favourite Western, in fact forget the Westerns part, it’s up there with my all-timers. After finishing it the first time, I had the strong urge to play the whole thing over again. Seeing it ahead of this review was just a pleasure, and I’ve no idea how many times I have dug out the disc since buying it. It’s just one of those titles, I guess; I don’t get bored of it and find myself getting caught up in the film’s ratcheting tension with each and every viewing. Irrational aside – there’s a small part of me hoping, this time, that Cooper will forget his obligations to Hadleyville and keep that wagon rolling, enjoy the company of the lovely Grace Kelly in whatever life they choose instead of turning around in order to face Frank Miller. Just keep going, Gary – they don’t deserve you!

In the interests of putting together enough material for a balanced critique, I jotted some bullet points as the film was playing. Here’s what I produced:

I hope you can read that – if not, here’s a larger version that will open in a new tab (I can’t do anything about the bad handwriting, sorry). Don’t worry; I’m not about to go into each and every point here, but I would like to start by eulogising Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, in particular the High Noon ballad that opens the picture, as the credits roll and Miller’s compadres assemble in readiness for their showdown. If there’s one single element that draws me back to High Noon, it’s that simple song, with its melancholic Tex Ritter vocals about Cooper’s character, Marshal Will Kane, begging for his new wife Amy (Kelly) not to forsake him while he meets his destiny against Miller. It’s lovely and haunting, and it follows Kane about for the next eighty five minutes as he prepares for his fate, indeed much of the film’s score is a riff on the ballad.

Stripped back, High Noon is a fairly straightforward and even standard Western story. Kane is the Marshal in a little backwater town named Hadleyville. It’s his last day in the job before standing down, and he’s getting married in a little Quaker ceremony to Amy. As he’s preparing to leave town for good, he learns that a dangerous gunslinger called Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been released from gaol and is on his way back; his train will arrive at noon. Years earlier, Marshall was a troubling presence in Hadleyville before Kane apprehended him and oversaw the delivery of the death penalty by Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger). With Miller gone, Hadleyville grew in peace and prosperity under Kane’s marshalship, but he and the judge both recall the villain’s portentous words of vengeance when he was convicted, and in the meantime his date with the noose was prorogued to a prison sentence. Kane’s torn between skipping and leaving Hadleyville to its fate, or staying and fighting Miller. What he doesn’t count on are the feelings of the town itself, the community of friends that steadily deserts him as the clock ticks down to noon, not to mention Amy’s vehement disagreement with his decision to remain.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The story opens at around quarter to eleven and the events building up to Miller’s arrival play out in real time, meaning that over the next hour Kane comes to realise that he has to stand up to him alone. The ticking of the clock, revisited often with the minute hands progressing inexorably, generate instant suspense as Kane is refused again and again by people he thought of as friends.

There’s tones of plot getting peeled away as the clock ticks down, and it’s a product of the slick editing by Elmo Williams and Harry W Gerstad that a raft of stories connected to so many individuals are outlined or even hinted at. By the end, High Noon feels like a much longer film than its running time due to the sheer swathes of clever characterisation and plot developments that are being rolled out all the time. One of the principal sub-plots involve Ellen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), owner of Hadleyville’s drinking hole and hotel. It emerges that she was Miller’s girl once upon a time, before turning her affections to Kane and finally to his young Deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges). Her ‘previous’ is a great source of tension between Kane and Pell, the way she’s a lot wiser than the latter and still harbours feelings for Kane, knowing – and teling Pell – that he isn’t half the man the Marshal is. Moreover, Ellen develops into the town’s heart. She knows exactly what will happen, that Kane will be abandoned by the community, and quickly sells her business and packs to leave as she understands that the day’s events will mark the end of Hadleyville as she knows it. The contrast between her, Kane’s ex, and Amy, his present, is irresistible, even down to the black clothes Ellen wears jarring with the bride’s virginal white dress. For much of High Noon, its emotions are firmly in tune with Jurado’s character, plain speaking, passionate and beautiful, against the callow Amy, who only comes into her own at the end.

And Ellen’s only the highlight. Bridges teases all the resentment and jealousy out of Pell, loathing Kane’s status and wanting his job, whilst knowing deep down that he’ll never measure up the same. Lon Chaney Jr puts in an appearance as Hadleyville’s former Marshal, broken by thankless years of service and seeing nothing but doom in Kane’s sticking around. Mayor Jonas Henderson is played by Thomas Mitchell, who reveals the town’s yellow heart during an impassioned speech to the church congregation, arguing they’re all better off without Kane because they might get left alone by Miller if he isn’t around, in the course of which exposing the tissue-thin extent of his friendship with the Marshal. There’s also the town barber who orders more coffins to be built when he hears Miller is approaching, the weasly hotel clerk who has nothing good to say about the Marshal, Kane’s friend Sam (Tom London) who’s too terrified to help out and gets his wife to make his excuses, the young lad who’s devoted to him and Kruger’s judge who knows exactly when he needs to move on.

You guessed it, Hadleyville is stuffed with a rogues’ gallery of selfish and greedy people, happy to be sheltered by Kane when it suits them but quick to turn their backs when the going gets tough. Towering above them all is Kane himself, wandering the dusty streets with that Tiomkin ballad playing in the background and looking more hopeless and solitary with each passing minute. Gary Cooper wasn’t the first choice for the role. Acting in movies since the early 1920s, Cooper was entering his fifties when High Noon was released and looked more like Grace Kelly’s father than her groom. Other names included Gregory Peck, who was concerned about how it would play against his previous Western The Gunfighter, and would later admit that turning it down was one of the worst career decisions he made. To add to Cooper’s problems, he was ill at the time, suffering from a variety of debilitating ailments, though in the film this all worked to his advantage as he was so convincingly able to convey the physical toll on Kane and needing little in terms of make-up to replicate the character’s hardships.

High Noon’s deeper subtext is a reflection of the time in which it was made, when the House of Un-American Activities Committee was fixing its gaze on Hollywood and blacklisting many of its major players. One such was the film’s writer, Carl Foreman, a former Communist who knew his time in the American industry was up, despite Cooper’s defence of him before the Committee. Foreman turned in a script about one man fighting the forces of ambivalence alone in a way that apparently mirrored his own plight. Zinneman, who won two Academy Awards for direction, was only nominated here, but made his Western as a taut thriller, with some brilliant shots – those close-ups of the town’s faces and of Miller’s gang staring menacingly right into the camera, the railroad filmed from the tracks themselves (which as the train neared almost did for Zinneman and his cameraman as they didn’t realise until the last moment that its brakes were failing), the zoom out from a beleagured Kane as he’s left utterly alone on the deserted streets.

John Wayne, a supporter of blacklisting, disliked the film and made Rio Bravo with Howard Hawks as a riposte from the more conservative perspective. Over the years, it’s become something of a tradition to fall either on one side or the other. The difference is that in the Hawks-Wayne movie the emphasis is on togetherness, the banding of ‘brothers’ (Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo) against a common enemy, It’s a warmer message, certainly, and I refer you to Colin’s excellent review for more on this affirmed classic of the genre, but like him I tend to strip away the politics (the benefit of being born much later than the sociological drivers behind both films) and look at the end products, the pictures we’re left to admire today, on their own terms. I like Rio Bravo, but for me High Noon represents something of a pinnacle, a film I enjoy and am gripped by with every viewing. From my point of view, it’s perilously close to perfection.

High Noon: *****