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.

10 Rillington Place (1971)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 31 March (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

– I don’t know, Mr Christie.
– Well Tim, if you haven’t got complete confidence in my abilities…
– I trust you, Mr Christie, of course I do.

I think I was seven when we went on a family holiday to London. One of the attractions we visited was Madame Tussaud’s with its Chamber of Horrors, and inside, amidst the medieval torture devices was a gallery of notorious serial killers. One of these was a rather unassuming middle-aged, balding man, alone in a room, paste brush in hand whilst behind him one of the walls was covered with freshly laid wallpaper. This turned out to be John Reginald Christie. The surface over which he’d so recently papered was a covered up alcove, and inside were the bodies of three murdered women.

It was this alcove that ultimately did for Christie. Shortly after concealing his crime, he sub-let his flat and left, living rough and sleeping in doss houses. In the meantime, the new tenants arrived, complained about the smell and discovered the makeshift tomb. When the police turned up, a further corpse, that of Christie’s wife Ethel, was found beneath the floorboards, along with the remains of two further women buried in the garden, a femur bone being used to prop up a fence. Later, Christie would be accused of killing Beryl and Geraldine Evans, the wife and baby daughter of Timothy Evans, who himself had been hanged for the crimes several years earlier whilst occupying the same building. Three years on from Evans’s death, Christie faced the noose.

What struck me about the waxwork model was the apparent ordinariness of the murderer. In films and on television, there’s often some obvious sign that marks someone out as a serial killer, some indefinable thing that marks them out as psychologically unbalanced enough to commit such heinous crimes, but Christie looked so normal, which of course made the whole affair so much more chilling, the idea that you can’t tell, you really can’t tell.

It’s this quality that Richard Attenborough brought to sinister life when he played Christie in 10 Rillington Place, the address of the residence where the murders happened. I’ve always admired Attenborough more as an actor than for his directing. The films he’s helmed too often appear to me to move at a pace slightly slower than stately, whereas on the other side of the camera he can produce really haunting performances across a wide variety of roles. Christie’s one of his best, something he also acknowledged, the murderer who projects a veneer of outward genteel respectability so convincingly that he can get murderously close to women whilst shifting the suspicion onto others. On the surface, his Christie appears to be just another man on the street, nothing to see here, but it’s all in the restless shifting of his eyes, his habit of peering out of a gap in the drapes as though sensing the knot of suspicion closing around him, the soft spoken Yorkshire dialect that comes across as warm and genial.

The story focuses on the murders of Beryl and Geraldine, and the implication of Timothy as their killer, a fabrication weaved by Christie. At the time 10 Rilington Place was made, Evans had already been pardoned for the killing of his wife though not his daughter, the crime for which he had actually been convicted in the first instance. Whilst the matter of police misconduct during the investigation was still undecided, the film based itself on Ludovic Kennedy’s book, Ten Rillington Place, which argued that the investigation had been flawed and Evans innocent. In the film, Evans is played by the BAFTA nominated John Hurt as a working class Welshman with a seriously low IQ, meaning he can be easily influenced by Christie. Judy Geeson plays Beryl, Evans’s pretty young wife, who becomes pregnant for a second time. This is a worry for the couple. They can barely afford to make ends meet and their flat in 10 Rillington Place is small and squalid enough to begin with. Christie, who was able to meet many women during the war as a backstreet abortionist, offers his services to the Evans couple and they agree. What they don’t realise is that it’s an excuse to gas Beryl into a state of unconsciousness and then rape and strangle her, which is exactly what he does. The tools of his trade, the pipes that hook up to the gas supply, supposedly benign medicinal mixture, and rope, are kept under lock and key in a little medicine cabinet, and his retrieval of these items is a sure precursor to murder.

Evans goes to work, comes home and Christie tells him there’s been a complication in the abortion and Beryl’s dead. By simple persuasion, he argues they’re both guilty and offers to get rid of the body if Evans will leave for a while. He even says he knows a couple who’ll take Geraldine in, which seems to solve all the young man’s problems at once. Of course that’s a lie and Evans is no sooner on the train to Merthyr than Christie’s taking his tie upstairs in order to deal with the baby. Back in Wales and racked with guilt, Evans hands himself in to the police. Events start to spiral out of control as the investigation and the ease with which they wring a confession out of him turn the case into a fait accompli. Crucially, Christie distances himself completely from the murders. Ethel (Pat Heywood) backs him up, though there’s a sense she suspects something isn’t right. Evans, unable to read the confession he’s signed, hopelessly out of his depth and only realising at the end that he’s been stitched up, begins repeating ‘Christie’s done it’ but it’s all too late and he has an appointment to keep with the hangman.

It’s a brilliant study by Hurt, the youthful bravado he shows whilst drinking with his mates at the pub falling away once he realises he’s in desperate trouble and relying on entirely the wrong man to help him. It becomes apparent quickly that he’s just the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he doesn’t come close to appreciating the man into whom he’s placed his trust is the wrongest of all the elements. Geeson’s great as the innocent and hopeful Beryl, and there’s a small part for Isobel Black as her best friend, who for her own sake is probably fortunate to vanish from the picture when she does.

10 Rillington Place was directed by Richard Fleischer, a flexible filmmaker whose previous work covered on these pages are a far cry from the subject matter here. Fleischer had made films about real-life serial killers before, notably The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis, but he brought a real documentary sensibility to this project, feeling rightly that the subject matter was horrific enough without the need for added melodrama. As far as it was possible to do so, the script by Clive Exton copied real, recorded speeches from the characters. The scenes at Rillington Place were filmed in Rillington Place (which has since been knocked down and completely remodelled as part of Notting Hill’s subsequent gentrification – this YouTube video speculates on the most likely location); the residents at number 10 wouldn’t allow their home to be used, so the crew worked across the street in number 7 instead, capturing starkly the slum conditions that framed the ghastly events, the poverty of the intransigent residents, the relative ‘four to a room’ destitution within which Christie operated. The murders, when they take place, are shown graphically, and whilst little is made of the killer’s motives, the signs are there in Attenborough’s performance. Most chillingly of all, it’s the ease with which he commits his crimes that are the most shocking element, the absence of guilt as though it’s all a normal part of his working day.

It’s a difficult film to recommend as entertainment, though it’s certainly worth seeing not least as a study into the machinations of a real life killer, told largely without embellishment, also the shaky police work that led to Evans’s hanging. In 1965, several years before 10 Rillington Place was released, the death penalty in the UK was suspended, largely because of the horrible potential of wrongful convictions. There was a large swell of support for its return, before people saw the film and appreciated the consequences of getting it wrong.

10 Rillington Place: ****

Watership Down (1978)

When it’s on: Saturday, 27 December (2.45 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

There aren’t many ‘U’ rated animated features like Watership Down, and on a personal note it’s one of the first movies I remember watching in full. As a treat one Christmas, my primary school (I can’t have been any older than eight) stopped classes one afternoon and screened it on their projection system. I can imagine the teachers’ train of thought – nice film about rabbits… good family fare… nothing harmful or corrupting there, and the terror that must have gone through their minds as the gore-soaked odyssey unfolded on the screen. I can only imagine the string of nervous Number Six that were smoked in the staff room that afternoon.

I remember very clearly loving it. Seeing it as an adult, I fully appreciate the concern some might have that it isn’t really a film for young kids, and by any family-rated movie’s standards it contains a lot of blood and more than its fair share of haunting imagery. There’s a powerful counter-argument that Watership Down to some extent delivers precisely what children want from their films, and very rarely get, an unblinking, visceral experience that makes no attempt to water down its material or condescend to young audiences. Added to that is genuine heart. If Watership Down has a message, it is that life is always precious, and very often fragile.

The film is of course based on Richard Adams’s bestselling novel, and tracks it closely in terms of the spirit and themes the author was attempting to convey. What really impresses about the story is the mythology Adams has created for his rabbit characters. These aren’t Disney bunnies, humans in animal form. They have their own stories, their own names for things e.g. ‘Hrududu,’ the rabbit word for moving motor vehicles, which is presumably – not to mention ingeniously – based on the noise they make and, critically in terms of the plot, their own ideas about death and the afterlife. The rabbits’ story about how they are all descended from El-ahrairah, the original prince of all rabbits, is told in the film’s prologue, a sublimely nasty piece of film that is shown as a kind of animated series of woodcuts. What it does is firmly establish the rabbits’ own sense of their place in the world – perils are all around. They have a thousand enemies, a fact reinforced by the sequence of dangers experienced by the film’s main characters. Yet they aren’t helpless. Frith, the rabbits’ God represented by the sun, gifts them with cunning and speed.

The story opens with frail ‘seer’ rabbit, Fiver (Richard Briers) begging his leaders to leave the warren and search for a new home. A human sign erected nearby has given him a vague yet horribly strong premonition of danger, illustrated as he sees their field covered in the dying oranges of the setting sun, which turns into blood. Unfortunately, the chief rabbit is unmoved when Fiver and his brother Hazel (John Hurt) present their case. Fat and complacent, the head of the owsla (rabbit police) doesn’t want to know, and our heroes are compelled to steal away in the night with several others who believe their warnings. Sure enough, as the rabbits leave, they pass a board they obviously wouldn’t be able to read that tells us the land is scheduled for development. Later in the film, a captain from the owsla catches up with the runaways, and tells them the warren was blocked up by humans. In probably the movie’s most horrific scene, we see red-eyed rabbits clamber over each other, asphyxiating in their desperate struggle to escape their blocked-up tunnels and ploughed land.

What follows is the rabbits’ journey through an eternity of (mostly) perilous encounters, on their way to Watership Down, which Fiver describes as ‘high, lonely hills, where the wind and the sound carry, and the ground’s as dry as straw in a barn.’ It’s a real place, a hill in Hampshire that Adams evoked from his own childhood. Some of the dangers they come across are mild – a badger (or lendri) leering at them with blood-soaked teeth from the bushes. Others are less so. One rabbit is randomly picked off by a swooping hawk when she ventures from the safety of a cornfield. Hazel’s attempts to ‘rescue’ some tame doe rabbits from a farmhouse hutch are ever undermined by the presence of an ill-minded and predatory cat.

Creepier still is the heroes’ encounter with Cowslip, a seemingly friendly rabbit who offers to share his warren with them. Things seem too good to be true, and of course they are. The warren is riddled with snares and traps, its occupants ‘kept’ so that they can be killed and eaten by humans. Fiver, for all his moaning, is the one who sees it first, and who later helps to rescue the macho Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) from just such a snare.

The story culminates as the rabbits discover Watership Down, and find it’s every bit the perfect warren for them. Unfortunately they’ve arrived without any females, and the only place they can find any willing to join them is ruled by the fascist General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) and his ‘claw first, speak later’ owsla. The survival of the warren depends on whether they can extricate any of the does, some of whom are willing to come, but aren’t allowed to leave…

The fear of meeting the Black Rabbit of Death is all around. ‘When he comes for you, you have no choice but to go,’ Fiver warns, and in one of the film’s more dreamlike sequences, he indeed follows the black rabbit, which he believes is leading him towards the wounded Hazel. This is the sequence featuring Bright Eyes, the theme tune composed by Mike Batt and featuring the vocal stylings of Art Garfunkel that became a chart hit. It’s a scene that actually works incredibly well, Garfunkel’s voice taking on an ethereal quality as the black rabbit leaps elusively out of reach.

All of which is told using an animation style that has a rather beautiful, pastoral watercolour look. The English countryside scenery is detailed and gorgeous, and the animators’ attempt to create a very different style for the appearance of rabbit myths and legends is bold indeed. It’s not perfect; there’s sometimes an unnatural way that the animals move, no doubt a result of the technological limitations of the time, whilst the lack of shadows cast by the characters is an attention to detail that is addressed as a matter of course in modern films. Yet nothing looks quite like it, and the voice cast more than makes up for amy visual shortcomings. Briers lends Fiver exactly the nervous quality you would expect from a rabbit who can see dead people. Hurt is also on fine form as Hazel, and clearly has the kind of vocal range that makes him ideal for noble and heroic characters (he also made for a memorable Aragorn in the Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings). A roll call of British luminaries – Ralph Richardson, Simon Cadell, Roy Kinnear, Michael Hordern, Denholm Elliott – make up the rest of the cast, and there’s a winning turn from Zero Mostel, who in his last ever role provided the voice of Kehaar, the gull who helps the rabbits when not providing the film’s much needed comic relief.

Watership Down: ****