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.