Silence Louder Than Words: A Movie Review of “A Man for All Seasons”
Year: 1966 Filming:
Color Length: 120 minutes
Maturity: PG (for brief language and intense thematic elements)
Cast: Paul Scofield (Sir Thomas More), Robert Shaw (King Henry VIII), Wendy Hiller (Alice More), Susannah York (Margaret More Roper), Leo McKern (Thomas Cromwell), John Hurt (Richard Rich), Orson Welles (Cardinal Wolsey), Nigel Davenport (The Duke of Norfolk) Director: Fred Zinnemann
Personal Rating: 5 Stars
If I had to pick my favorite movie of all time, it would have to be A Man for All Seasons. As one of the only movies to make a Catholic English Martyr its main focus, it will always hold a special place in my Anglophile heart. But beyond that, I believe the film is true to its title and subject by being relatable to all people and applicable to all seasons.
Paul Scofield stars as Sir Thomas More, an honorable man caught in the grip of religious and political upheaval in Tudor England. A political figure and personal friend of King Henry VIII, his future advancement seems likely even as he enjoys a quiet life with his wife and daughter at his country estate in Chelsea. However, dark clouds loom on the horizon when the king takes it upon himself to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, on a “point of conscience.”
Pressured to support the move by the corrupt Cardinal Wolsey, the devoutly Catholic More maintains that annulments are a matter for the Holy See, but his refusal to speak for or against the proceedings sparks the anger of the irascible king. Nevertheless, Sir Thomas is appointed Lord Chancellor of England, making his position more precarious than ever. When King Henry visits More at Chelsea, he once again tries to force him to make a statement about the divorce which results in a bitter show-down between the two men.
When the pope definitively refuses to grant an annulment for the king, Henry breaks ties with Rome and declares himself to be Head of the Church of England. More, in turn, resigns his commission as Lord Chancellor, and he and his family adjust to a life of more limited means. But when the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging the king as Head of the Church is made mandatory, More refuses to sign it. As a result, he is thrown into the Tower of London.
Using all his legal knowledge and pristine wit, he attempts to avert his fate while still keeping the faith, refusing to reveal his true opinions to anyone and maintaining his right to remain silent. When repeated interrogations from the peers of the realm fail to shake his resolve, his family is recruited to sway him, and a deeply emotional encounter takes place in prison. In spite of this, More holds fast to his convictions, which sets him on the bitter path of mock trial and martyrdom.
In true British fashion, the style of this film is dry yet potent, full of both amusing wit and emotional depth. The camera techniques and visuals also aim for an almost stark depiction of the past which seemingly manages to transcend the centuries. The quick cuts from one scene to another and general lack of background music add to this poignant sense of realism. It is not cluttered with the hyperbole and sensationalism of an epic, but rather approached in a straightforward manner of a docu-drama.
This does not mean there are not some splendors for the eye. Thank heavens, this movie filmed on location in England which makes it feel all the more authentic and personally sparks my imagination. It all seems to be as it should be – the great river used as a highway, the foggy landscapes, the Tudor buildings, the interiors of Westminster Hall. And those sinister gargoyles that serve as a constant motif are a deeply evocative display of both power and peril. Another cinematic symbol involves bells being rung in the most prestigious churches and cathedrals in the kingdom to celebrate the king’s wedding to Anne Boleyn, highlighting that amidst all noise, Thomas More’s silence and refusal to attend speaks the loudest of all.
While the music overall is sparse, the introductory theme for A Man for All Seasons is deeply impactful for me, full of the pageantry of the age but also containing undercurrents of the turmoil in the plot. There are other musical highlights to be mentioned as well. I am always moved by the scene where Sir Thomas is being led to the interrogation at Richmond Palace, and he passes a room full of revelers, laughing and dancing. Their trivial display in the face of such depth of spirit is a powerful contrast. The same is true for the bombastic music played when Henry VIII and his brightly-clad, fumbling courtiers visit Chelsea by barge.
The cast is stellar, and Paul Scofield makes a perfect Thomas More. His expressions are wonderfully readable, and his voice has a terrific range, from his usual quiet demeanor to the bellowing finale in Westminster Hall. He also brings a depth of humanity to More, who admits that beneath his witty phrases and lawyer’s banter he is afraid of what his fate will be after challenging the king. Wendy Hiller makes a delightfully grouchy Mrs. More, and one of the most emotional scenes is her final parting from her husband in the cell, when he tries to compliment her dress and custard to put her in a good mood. She explodes in anger and says she fears she will hate him if he should let himself be killed, and he repeats in a broken voice, “No, you mustn’t Alice…you mustn’t…” She eventually breaks down and embraces him, saying she’d gladly tell the king what she thinks of him. He affectionately repeats, “It’s a lion I married, a lion!”
The film also does an excellent job portraying the relationship between Thomas and his favorite daughter, Meg, which I always relate to because of my own close relationship with my father. Another relationship I find deeply fascinating is the one between More and The Duke of Norfolk. It is obvious that Thomas deeply values their friendship, but he also says that as deep as his affection towards Norfolk runs, God is the only one who is love through and through, and He must come first. Then he tries on purpose to get Norfolk to break their friendship so he will not be implicated with More. It always gives me a little pang in the heart as their argument escalates and The Duke tries to strike Thomas, leaving him sprawled on the ground with a look of intense pain on his face.
To my never-ending angst, some have insisted that A Man for All Seasons is a “boring”, “unimaginative”, “conservative” film. If by boring they mean no Indiana Jones-style action sequences, well, they would happily be correct. If by unimaginative and conservative they mean that there is actually a moral conundrum that can be defined into “right” and “wrong” categories, and this film celebrates the right, they would happily be correct. It is not meant to be light entertainment, nor is it meant to be strictly academic. As Sir Thomas tells his sobbing daughter Meg, after all the arguments are finished, love is what remains. An interesting fact is that Robert Bolt, the screenplay writer of A Man for All Seasons, was an agnostic, yet always felt an abiding connection with St. Thomas for his principled stand against tyranny. The result was that Bolt did an exceptional job portraying religious conviction without being arrogant or preachy.
As a side-effect, non-religious themes were stressed to make the film more palatable to non-Catholic viewers. At times, liberty of conscious is made to eclipse the issue of loyalty to Papal Authority and The Catholic Church. It is much easier to swallow for broader audiences, but oftentimes misrepresents the real Thomas More, who was actually stridently fought against heresy within the realm. The fact is he was a man of his age, and some of the things he did may seem rather small-minded and even a bit hypocritical in modern times. But he was also very much an innovator and a Renaissance man, determined to make the world a better place through his role in politics and maintaining his integrity and devotion to Christ’s Church even at the cost of his life. And this was a man who deeply loved life.
The finale in Westminster Hall is unfailingly inspiring, especially as I think of Pope Benedict XVI making a speech in that very same hall just a few years ago. It always strikes the inner core of my being, and sets my jaw on edge with the sheer level of intensity. There is Richard Rich, the superficial young man who becomes the lackey of Thomas Cromwell and perjures Sir Thomas in Court. More takes a look at the chain of around his neck, and sees the emblem of the red dragon. Inquiring as to its significance, he is told that Rich has been made the High Commissioner of Wales. Then the classic line from Sir Thomas: “Our Lord said it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world and lose his soul…but for Wales?”
More’s final statements in the Hall are pretty explicit about his very Catholic convictions. He says Parliament has no power to meddle in the affairs of the Church or declare Henry head of the Church, and that by doing so they are going against both the Magna Charta and the king’s own coronation oath. Only the Pope has to power to judge on matters of ecclesiastical rulings, and only he can claim the title head of the Church, because it was given him by Christ Himself, who gave St. Peter the keys to the kingdom. His execution follows swiftly afterwards, after his final words: “I die his Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” After this we are taken back to a shot of the gargoyles and the wonderfully unperturbed British narrator telling us that most of More’s tormenters would ultimately be executed as well, usually for lesser causes, and that Richard Rich would be made Chancellor of England…only to die in his bed.
As a Catholic, this movie is a testament to the heart of my beliefs, and I would highly recommend it as one of the greatest religious films of all time. It also demonstrates the very best and very worst of Englishness and Britishness and brings me back to my roots of how I came to love that nation and that people so strongly. Besides being focused on a saint, A Man for All Seasons stands apart as a classically-crafted, moving historical drama about a man who was willing to sacrifice everything to stay true to his faith and his conscience. Its power and poignancy will never wane, but only grow with each passing season.
By Rosaria Marie
A Man For All Seasons is available for purchase on DVD at Amazon.com