A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Starring Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, John Hurt

Watching A Man for All Seasons forces the viewer to put The Crucible on the brain. Thomas More is the antithesis of John Proctor; where Proctor sees himself already neck-deep in the quicksand of his sin, Thomas More walks on water. Yet both are on trial, both of them accused of a fundamentally unfair charge, both of them doomed because they ultimately refuse to play a game which was rigged against their consciences. In every freshman English class in every American high school, they are talking about the “man vs. society” conflict – which is riddled with holes, obviously, but is a serviceable colander for this discussion – and A Man for All Seasons fits it so neatly that one wonders if Robert Bolt ran across a fiery shrub which ordered him to write such a play.

In the future, man vs. society is a winner because it is easy to create a society which is clearly flawed. Katniss of The Hunger Games must, almost singlehandedly, fend off Panem/District 13. Luke Skywalker becomes the avatar of a small political offshoot who takes on an interstellar empire thousands of years old throughout the Star Wars original trilogy. (It’s entirely possible that Episode 7 will wipe out even that little piece of backstory. Farewell, Extended Universe: we barely knew ye.) Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale wonders about possible resistance to Gilead and may even achieve it effectively. Ender of Ender’s Game is one of the rare examples where man loses to society; at the conclusion of his novel, Ender has been used as a tool to complete a xenocide; only when he finds out that a hive queen remains alive can he even begin to contemplate a way to fight back against the society that used him. Winston Smith of 1984, obviously, does not even have that possibility ahead of him, and John the Savage in Brave New World has, perhaps, an even more…savage…finale. Yet in light science-fiction, the good man (or, as we’ve seen, woman) manages to defeat an evil society.

In the past viewed by contemporary authors, though, that evil society seems to win out far more frequently, and we are left with moral victories for our protagonists that don’t frequently appear in contemporary lit by contemporary authors. (To Kill a Mockingbird is the winner here.) The reason we can have moral victories for those people is because in those texts, God exists. God is absent (and, I daresay, perhaps dead in a few of those aforementioned texts) very frequently in the future, but in these historical stories told by contemporary authors, God is everywhere; God is the shortcut to the adamantium moral spine of Thomas More. One wonders how that would be received nowadays – probably it would be received as Faith Like Potatoes. In the present day, it is very hard to believe that God is on anybody’s side; to listen to someone yell “GOD IS ON MY SIDE” for two hours is closer to being the story of Peter Bartholomew than the story of Thomas More. (The story of Peter Bartholomew, incidentally, would make a great movie, but that’s not why we’re here today.) And for what it’s worth, neither More nor Proctor are heroic in the plays/films about them because of their faith, though More’s Catholicism and Proctor’s Puritanism are integral to the stories. They don’t gain their strength from prayer or from reading the Bible or other stereotypically Christian activities. More gains his strength from his overwhelming honesty and forthrightness; Proctor gains his not from his honesty (which, in his words, is “broke”), but from the stubborn streak in himself that he rediscovers in the final moments of his life.

The story of Thomas More is very well-known, as he is maybe the last Catholic martyr to come to mind until until Maximilian Kolbe or Oscar Romero of the 20th Century. More, who served as the Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, opposed Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon; More, a staunch Catholic, believed in papal supremacy. It was this opinion which ultimately got him executed by his political enemies. A Man for All Seasons tightens up this period of time significantly, but otherwise does a fair job at providing the gist of the incident.

I said I had The Crucible on the brain watching this movie, and I confess that it may not even have had so much to do with the whole man vs. society jawn as it had to do with the presence of Paul Scofield. In The Crucible, Scofield plays Danforth, who is the authoritarian villain of the piece. (Villain is a little strong, but he certainly isn’t good.) Danforth is the man who wants Proctor to confess to a crime he never committed, and ultimately condemns Proctor to death. In this movie, Scofield gets to play the Proctor-character instead. He’s magnificent.

This is the third post I’ve written in which I’ve mentioned Paul Scofield – he gets very little ink, sadly, in my Crucible post and a bit more in my Quiz Show – and with every film I see him, I grow more convinced that he was one of the ten or fifteen best actors of the 20th Century. (I know, I know, I’m late to the bandwagon.) Very little of his life’s work was in film, and few are the films he appeared in which did not originate on the stage. Scofield’s voice, as it is for many great actors – Gielgud, Day-Lewis, Brando, Hanks, De Niro – is instinctly recognizable. Even if he weren’t playing the only guy in England who won’t take the Oath of Supremacy, he would be an individual because of that profound voice, both deep and reedy. He sounds like a bassoon that has learned language. When telling a joke, that voice can go up surprisingly high, seeming to float up to the punchline; when being a bastion of moral superiority, his voice can fill Parliament with the classic basso profundo. It is the only voice that could have filled this part. It is unimaginable even to conceive of one of those other great Shakespearean actors with their great Shakespearean voices – Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud – in the part. Of course, there is something dreadfully Shakespearean about it all; one man, through his own choices, seals his fate.

Many of the other characters, even when played by talented actors, feel like necessities rather than people who can play up to Scofield. Wendy Hiller, playing some dude’s  More’s wife, gets all of the thanks that such a role usually gets. Susannah York, playing More’s daughter, Meg, is fetching as the real object of More’s affection, and yet she never does steal our attention away from Scofield. Ditto Nigel Davenport as the Duke of Norfolk, Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell, and even Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey. It’s a marvelous group of actors, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off of Scofield, even when those characters had equivalent lines to speak.

The first actor who measures up to Scofield, albeit in a single scene, is Robert Shaw (Henry VIII). I imagine in the ’60s we were all still very much about Fat Henry, or Gout Henry, or Wives Henry. Since The Tudors, people have begun to view Henry differently: Sexy Henry has become just as interesting to people as Fat Henry. And A Man for All Seasons, to its immense benefit, chooses something much closer to Sexy Henry. Henry, in real life, died at 55; by age 42, when he ended his marriage with Catherine and married Anne Boleyn, it is doubtful he maintained the powerful figure which made him a formidable sportsman in the custom of the times (jousting, wrestling, archery, etc.) and which might have made him an equally formidable center back in our time. Robert Shaw, nearly ten years before the sideburned, beer-guzzling portrayal of Quint that he’s best known for now, plays Henry like a hurricane. At one moment, he’s landing feet-first in the Chelsea mud and guffawing about it; the next, he’s playfully quizzing Meg in Latin; the next, he leads More, quite insightfully, into the reasons why men like Norfolk and Cromwell follow him; the next, he is roaring that Catherine has never been and can never be his wife. It is a terrific performance. He bubbles like hot water on a stove, yet the audience can hardly tell when the simmer or the full boil will take over. He is not onscreen for very long, and he, to the best of my ability, only is onscreen in one more scene, for his wedding feast with Anne where he thinks he sees his friend, Thomas. Shaw plays a king whose joy and energy are infectious; even if he were not the king, it would be hard to deny a man that passionate and engaging anything.

The other actor who holds his own with Scofield, perhaps because his character is supposed to be a wormy figure who can’t stand up to More anyway, is John Hurt as Richard Rich. This was Hurt’s first major screen role, and he is, frankly, unrecognizable to someone whose first introduction to him was through Harry Potter. More than anyone else in the movie except, perhaps, for York, Hurt-as-Rich looks like he escaped from the 1960s and landed in the 1530s. Rich, from the get-go, is clearly obsessed with becoming someone. More refuses to give him a position at court despite Rich’s constant begging for it. When he tells Rich that he can get him a position at fifty pounds a year, a servant, and a residency, Rich is very pleased until he finds out that More is trying to push him into education.

More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.

Rich: If I was, who would know it?

More’s response is typical – it’s something along the lines of “everyone you know and also God” – but Rich, like most ambitious people, is not content to settle for something which will keep him out of the public eye. Rich looks to Cromwell for the position instead, and ultimately gets it. Interestingly enough, while Rich is from the beginning an obvious snake in the grass, he also seems to understand just how good a man More is; when More asks why he doesn’t just try to finagle a position from Cromwell, Rich replies that he’d rather get it from More.

It is Rich, of course, who plays Judas. At the trial of Thomas More, who has been silent on the matter of the Oath of Supremacy and trusting in the doctrine of qui tacet consentit, or “silence gives consent.” By his silence, he can maintain what his duty to God, the Pope, his faith, and his own conscience; by the same token, in a court of law he cannot honestly be tried and found guilty if he refuses to speak on the topic. But Rich, his ambition leading him further and further on, decides to commit perjury and tells the court that More has said, in his company, the words which would prove his guilt. Rich’s words, of course, condemn More.

Hurt’s performance here – sniveling, stammering, mousy – is absolutely fitting, especially in comparison to how regal Scofield can be just sitting up straight. But his willingness to be the trampoline for Scofield’s high-flying line readings is what makes that scene in the courtroom. There’s a running comment in the play about Rich’s desire to buy a new gown. Seeing Rich costly in his habit as his purse can buy, More inquires how he has come to afford such rich clothing. Cromwell, interceding for his star witness, replies that Rich has been made the attorney general for Wales. More’s response is priceless, and it is here that we understand that a man who is ready to become a martyr is truly a man for all seasons in the way of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

It profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world – but for Wales, Richard?

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