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.

Robin and Marian (1976)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 26 June (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Hammer’s faltering Sword of Sherwood Forest was screened on Sunday, but two Robin Hood yarns in one week is certainly one too many, and Robin and Marian is without doubt the stronger choice.

The film started life as a concept handed to Richard Lester, one of many scrawled on a series of index cards. Flushed with success from The Three Musketeers and given his pick of projects, the director plumped eagerly for the idea of an ageing Robin Hood returning home after years soldiering in the Holy Land and France for King Richard. James Goldman, who penned The Lion in Winter, was duly commissioned to produce a script, rooted firmly in the same medieval England as his Henry II play. Imagining Robin as a bit of a grumpy old man, the casting of Sean Connery was an absolute masterstroke, whilst Audrey Hepburn was persuaded out of her lengthy sojourn raising her family to play Marian. The world of Robin and Marian reintroduced many characters from the legend, only now they were middle-aged and wiser, or at least more cynical. The ‘merrie men’ now comprised Nicol Williamson (Little John), Denholm Elliott (Will Scarlett) and Ronnie Barker as Friar Tuck. Robert Shaw was called on to provide an altogether darker-minded and more serious Sheriff than audiences were used to.

The action opens in France. Robin and John are twenty years in ‘Good’ King Richard’s service, only he isn’t quite so virtuous. The Lionheart (Richard Harris) has abandoned the Crusade and now campaigns closer to home, ever seeking riches. He’s dispatched our heroes to a castle that they’re to take, after hearing it contains a gold statue. It turns out there’s just a one-eyed old man left to protect the women and children. Robin’s ready to leave it, but the king insists on the attack, which compels the old man to throw an arrow into his neck. The wound’s mortal. Richard, dying, relieves Robin and forgives him for his disobedience. Thoroughly disillusioned, the former Hood and John head for Sherwood Forest (actually Pamplona) to find things changed yet strangely the same. Will and Tuck continue to live in the trees, though they’re the only ones left from the original gang. The Sheriff lurks inside Nottingham Castle as though waiting for the moment of Robin’s return. And Marian has been the abbess of a nearby priory for 18 years.

Seemingly within minutes of his return, Robin’s turned back the clock. Rescuing Marian from the clutches of the Sheriff, who is supposed to arrest her on religious grounds, they’re in their old forest hideout once more and planning further antics. The Sheriff, along with King John’s man, Sir Ranulf (Kenneth Haigh), plots his downfall, delivering the chilling lines ‘I know him. He’s a little bit in love with death. He flirts. He teases. I can wait.’ In the meantime, Robin and Marian fall in love all over again. It becomes clear that she was always his, the departure he made to follow King Richard all those years ago prompting her to attempt suicide before giving herself to God.

The depiction of Robin is entirely pleasing. After watching Connery go through the motions recently in his Bond films, it’s a real treat to see him putting his all into a character in which he truly appeared to believe. Best of all, Connery makes no attempt to mask Robin’s advancing years. Balding and grey, every effort he makes comes with a grunt or a grimace. In one scene, he and John are cornered by the Sheriff and compelled to climb a keep wall in order to escape, and there’s a lovely yet horrible moment when both outlaws realise a physical feat they may once have completed with ease is now sapping their energy. Shaw’s playing of the Sheriff gives him an opportunity to reprise the duel he once partook with Connery in From Russia with Love. Thirteen years on and Shaw’s cut form from the earlier film has given way to middle-aged spread and turned their swordfight into a tussle between exhausted men who can give no quarter. Despite the actor’s charisma and apparent affection over coming across Robin once again, there’s a terrible undercurrent of loathing about his Sheriff. It seems he’s stayed alive for the chance to best Robin, just once. In the end, nothing else matters to him. The almost casual way Robin clearly overcame him in the past (we’re supposed to imagine a more mythic, lyrical era, perhaps the Hood as depicted in the Errol Flynn starring The Adventures of Robin Hood) obviously rankles, leaving unfinished business.

But maybe better than both – and that’s saying something – is Audrey Hepburn. I’ve read elsewhere that she delivers a subdued performance, but for me it’s all about the eyes, the efforts she makes to dismiss the ageing but no wiser Robin who clearly still fancies himself as he once was, yet the longing in those enormous eyes betrays her true feelings. It’s a fantastically written role and delivered with real heart. She recalls with the feeling of someone haunted by memories their old dwelling in the roots of a tree, the way his body was in the old days and the many battle scars that have destroyed his perfection. It’s the role of someone who wholly welcomed playing a mature woman, one with an almost tangible passion.

Lester reins in his usual comic shtick. Though there are funny moments in the film, it’s an altogether tightly told affair, stuffed with fine performances from a starry cast in a dirty Middle Ages England. The attention to detail is just wonderful. At one point, the outlaws make their way to Nottingham and pass a man working the field who has just one arm. Is he supposed to be a war veteran or has he at some point incurred the wrath of the authorities? In a speech that doubles as his mission statement, Robin tells Sir Ranulf that he’ll always defend England from nobles like him who do what they want without consequence, which suggests the one-armed man was punished with mutilation, perhaps for thieving in desperate times. Who knows? It’s one tiny moment within a film set in a dangerous realm where people fear God but have more cause to be terrified of the Sheriff, a land, in other words, that has missed its Robin Hood.

Robin and Marian: ****

From Russia with Love (1963)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 May (3.40 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Beset with production difficulties throughout its shoot, From Russia with Love did all it could to undermine Broccoli and Saltzman’s wishes for annual Bond films. Just about everything that could go wrong did exactly that, topped off with the suicide of supporting actor Pedro Armendariz, who took his own life rather than fall to the ravages of the advanced cancer he discovered he had whilst on set. And yet From Russia with Love turned out to be amongst the best of the Bonds. Distinctly low key, and relying on the strength of its cast over the spectacular thrills and gadgetry that would come to define the series, it’s a great couple of hours’ cinema that may delight viewers who come to it expecting the same old nonsense from 007.

The story begins with a nice thread of continuity from Dr No. SPECTRE is riled by Bond’s quashing of Julius No’s machinations and resolves to rid itself of the spy. To this end, a plot is hatched that takes advantage of East-West relations. Bond (Sean Connery) is despatched to Istanbul, where he’s to bring home both Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a beautiful Russian secretary working on the Cold War front line, and the Lektor decoding machine she promises to bring along. The hook for Bond is that Tatiana is reported to have fallen in love with him. But the mission is an elaborate trap. Bond is rushing into the path of SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw), a man so tough he can take a knuckleduster to the abdomen without flinching. Believing his trip to be a success, Bond travels west on the Orient Express with Tatiana and the machine, oblivious to the fact his every move is being tracked…

There’s much enjoyment to be had from 007 going about his business, whilst in the shadows Grant watches. This is shown to best effect as Bond waits for his contact at a station, stood outside the train. Whilst he paces nervously (and ‘nervous’ is the operative word; the film suggests that Bond has an idea something’s afoot but only has the hairs on the back of his neck to go off), Grant can be observed through the window, keeping perfect pace with his prey. Later, the pair meet over dinner, the assassin posing as a Secret Service contact – after killing the real one – and attempting to lull our hero into a false sense of security, whilst Tatiana gets the spiked drink. His cover’s blown when he famously orders red wine with a fish course; a true British agent would never make such a working class error and Bond’s instantly onto him. The fight sequence that follows takes place in, of all places, a cramped train compartment, neither participant at their best in such close quarters, which leads to some fine, brutal action. Ultimately, Grant’s origins as a petty thief are his undoing. He has the better of his opponent and it’s only when Bond offers him money that he pauses.

Stunts and thrills are kept to a minimum, indeed it seems as though the film’s budget is blown on its last twenty minutes as Bond and Tatiana race to Vienna, pursued by SPECTRE helicopters and gun-toting speedboats. Otherwise, the most exciting sequence is the attack on a gypsy camp led by a Soviet agent, which Grant observes from a distance and chillingly offs anyone who stands in Bond’s way. In place of explosions and bullet dodging, the film offers suspense and a fine, slow burning pace, directed by Terence Young with an eye on the climactic fight between the spy and his would-be assassin. Also delightful is Lotte Lenya’s SPECTRE stooge, the lesbian Rosa Klebb, who gets her own opportunity to take Bond out after he’s dealt with everything else in his way.

Connery puts in some of his best 007 work, his vulnerabilities exposed more than once in From Russia with Love (we wouldn’t again see Bond show any such emotion until On her Majesty’s Secret Service, by which stage Connery was off-duty), whilst Bianchi comes across as adorable because the script gives her character time to grow on our affections. It’s impossible to round this piece off without a mention for John Barry, who enjoyed his first gig as the primary composer on a Bond film. His 007 arrangement makes an appearance here, most notably in the gypsy camp sequence, and it elicits all the adventure and fun these films tried to offer.

From Russia with Love: *****