WolfmanOz at the Movies #71

The ultimate man of conscience

It is a widely accepted axiom that it is easier to make a good movie out of a bad play than out of a good one; a bad play can be altered with a clear conscience so that its mishandled virtues are brought to the fore in a different medium, whereas there is a natural reluctance to tamper with a work of dramatic stature, even though the qualities that made it effective on stage will work against it on the screen. For me, Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons is one of the great plays of the 20th century

Bolt, acting as his own scenarist, and director Fred Zinnemann did a superb job of turning the play into a movie. Cinematic pacing, rhythm and verisimilitude are achieved in part by “opening up” the film to just enough scenes of court pageantry and the quiet loveliness of the Thames, which was the principal artery of communication between the court and its ministers.

Also the Common Man has been omitted from the film version. Besides serving as a unifying device in the play, this cheeky epitomiser of expediency was a constant reminder to us that we are not like More, the symbol of an unyielding selfhood but like the self-serving compromisers around him. But what worked on the stage may have seemed gimmicky on the screen.

The main cinematic tool, however, is the camera, artfully capturing the faces of superb actors speaking superb dialogue – dialogue that is the outward manifestation of electrifying confrontations and inner conflicts. A Man For All Seasons seemed to me, however, to possess much greater clarity and intellectual and emotional force than the play did, and I doubt that I could make this judgment except for what the film itself accomplishes.

It is a historical drama writ large on the silver screen in all its lavish splendour. On the surface, the film traces the familiar tale of Henry VIII and his infamous domestic issues, but really it’s the story of Sir Thomas More, the chancellor who served the king through these troubled times. 

A film can accomplish nothing unless it first entertains. I would further suggest that, in practice, few films that entertain do, in fact, elevate,  A Man For All Seasons is about the best we can hope for in the way of a great theme given consonantly great treatment (for which, incidentally, we are indebted to an agnostic playwright and a Jewish director of great skill and integrity).

As big and multi-layered a tale of court intrigue and political playmaking that it’s possible to imagine, unfolding over two hours, it’s peopled with an impressive cast of heavyweight acting talent and blessed with the kind of sumptuous cinematography you could lose yourself for a week in.

Made in Britain, with the American money of Columbia Pictures, this is historical drama the way it used to be, all plush vistas, moody verbal stand-offs in decadent courtyards and old-school acting masterclasses.

The film opens with More (Paul Scofield) being called to Hampton Court for a meeting with Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles).  It seems King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) wants to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave). Trouble is, the Pope has refused his request and now More, a devout Catholic, must attempt to balance his loyalty to the crown and his troublesome conscience. More chooses not to give his approval and stays silent instead, sparking off all kinds of trauma within the corridors of power where the likes of Thomas Cromwell (a superb Leo McKern) is gunning for his head.

For history buffs the story is a well worn one and Bolt doesn’t stray too far from the truth in his retelling of it, but the performances lift A Man For All Seasons into a filmic league of its own. Paul Scofield, a stage titan rarely seen in movies, is absolutely sublime, playing up the moral torment and complexity of the chancellor caught in a web of palace intrigue with dignity and grace.

Even the small roles are filled out beautifully, with Orson Welles standing out as Cardinal Wolsey. A minor part in some ways, Welles imbues it with gravitas; his light may have dimmed somewhat by 1966 but he wasn’t above giving the kind of actorly performance that almost steals the show.

A Man For All Seasons deals head on with a subject that has vanished from the films of today, and that’s one reason why I lament for what cinema has become today.

The very concept of a person standing up for, much less dying for, their strongly held convictions seems like ancient history to many, where Paul Scofield’s More is weary but confident, wanting to live, but much less afraid of dying than of betraying his faith. Subject matter for films today is mostly about seeking and finding pleasure, or absurdity, or offensiveness, in every aspect of the story. Naturally, A Man For All Seasons would not be made today: where audiences are so much in a hurry to get to the killing, or the special effects, or the explicit sex, or the sugar-coated, feel good ending.

I’m forever grateful that this film was made. It marks a place in film history where we were asking hard questions of ourselves; and, in Paul Scofield portrayal we have one of the greatest screen performances ever captured on film preserved for all-time.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . Damn you all to hell !

30 responses to “WolfmanOz at the Movies #71”

  1. Christine Avatar

    Paul Scofield, truly great actor
    Handsome face, beautiful voice

  2. calli Avatar

    You are right, Wolfman. That movie could not be made today. For a start, audiences wouldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

  3. calli Avatar

    And right back at you…out of the ruins, liberty shall arise. 😀

  4. johanna Avatar

    Apropos of historical films, compare and contrast this masterpiece with Hollywood’s latest offering – the alleged Cleopatra story which was discussed on the OT. Rated 1/10 or 2/10, depending on where you look.

    Reading the reviews on IMDB, I find that the absurdity of having a black actress in the role is among the least of the complaints by incensed viewers. It is the mangled misrepresentation of history and the lousy script and acting that really annoyed people, because it is described as a documentary.

    AMFAS is much closer to being a documentary than this garbage, though it does not claim to be one. It demonstrates that historical accuracy and art or not necessarily imcompatible. Indeed, as has often been observed, truth is stranger (and often more interesting) than fiction.

    There is a goldmine of great stories out there in the fields of history and biography, but contemporary Hollywood is too lazy and self absorbed to do the hard yards of finding them and adapting them for the big screen.

  5. Muddy Avatar

    I very much enjoyed reading this, Wolfman. Having bah-humbugged much of popular culture, I can add nothing specific, but I will come back and watch the clips you’ve included when I have a spare moment.

  6. WolfmanOz Avatar

    calli says:
    May 18, 2023 at 7:52 am

    Not quite sure what you mean calli ?

  7. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare Avatar
    Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare

    I enjoyed this film immensely when it first came out and this discussion makes me want to view it again to see how it wears this time. Well, I suspect.

    Royalty-tinged histories that are emotional dramas about belief and conscience, these days are more likely to be made-for-TV series, documentaries with historians striding through modern-day England elaborating on where it all took place, with various scenes then played out by actors to liven it up. We’ve recently been watching the Netflix series Death of Charles the First, which is one of these.

  8. Roger Avatar

    Not quite sure what you mean calli ?

    Reference to the statue of Liberty from next week’s fillum.

  9. WolfmanOz Avatar

    Roger says:
    May 18, 2023 at 10:09 am

    Of course ! ! !

    Muddy says:
    May 18, 2023 at 8:50 am

    Thanks Muddy – I really enjoyed your post yesterday, although I had no idea who were making the comments.

    Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare says:
    May 18, 2023 at 9:43 am

    Is the Netflix series Death of Charles the First worth watching ?

  10. Bar Beach Swimmer Avatar
    Bar Beach Swimmer

    Wolfie, this is one of my all time favourite films. I won’t compete with your great examination because you have covered all of it well.

    But on recent cinema, AMFAS wins hands down. There are great stories to tell but few if any studios willing to do them.

    Or, if they do, a whole lot of box-ticking to placate the “party line” must first be undertaken – see the Cleopatra debacle, as Johanna pointed out.

    I was too young to see AMFAS when it first came out, but a few years later, and still very much a child, I saw Ann of a Thousand Days. Though still good, it is nowhere near as good; I’m simply pointing to it because I question whether there wouldn’t be an outcry if today children were taken to see such a film. Thus showing that earlier generations were a tougher and more intellectually able lot than what is being encouraged in today’s younger crowd.

    In the film Midnight in Paris, a film I like, at one point the main character is asked by Ernest Hemingway about dying for a cause/belief. “No”, he responds, and with more than a little bit of surprise at the idea. Though as an author he wants to write a great novel!

    Today, our sense of comfort seems more interesting to us than any other subject possible.

  11. calli Avatar

    Sorry, Wolfman. I should have said it was about your teaser. One of the most parodied scenes of the cinema. Mel did it best.

  12. Muddy Avatar

    Off topic – as is my habit – but I believe Trainspotting was a play before it became a cult fillum?

  13. Roger Avatar

    A Man For All Seasons is about the best we can hope for in the way of a great theme given consonantly great treatment (for which, incidentally, we are indebted to an agnostic playwright and a Jewish director of great skill and integrity).

    Imagine that…there was enough cultural common ground intact in 1966 for More’s story to be given a sympathetic treatment by an agnsotic and a Jew and for the result to resonate with the popular audience and the members of the Academy.

    My, how far we’ve come…but it’s not progress.

  14. WolfmanOz Avatar

    Bar Beach Swimmer says:
    May 18, 2023 at 1:52 pm

    Well said BBS.

    Anne Of A Thousand Days is a pretty good film but I agree with you in does pale against A Man For All Seasons.

    I first came across A Man For All Seasons at high school where it was studied as the English course’s play for the term – imagine that today.

    A very good TV mini series about the events is Wolf Hall which takes a more sympathetic approach to Cromwell and a less flattering one of More. Well worth catching.

    calli says:
    May 18, 2023 at 1:56 pm

    All sweet calli – I should have twigged but I’ve been a bit tired this week due to the high number of soccer games I’ve been refereeing these last few weeks.

    Muddy says:
    May 18, 2023 at 1:58 pm

    Trainspotting was originally a novel by Irvin Welsh. Soon after publication, the book was adapted for the stage which inspired the subsequent film – which by the way is a superb film.

  15. Muddy Avatar

    A credible antagonist or obstacle to be overcome (such as one’s conscience) help the audience to identify with the hero of the story. These barriers are sometimes missing from modern popular culture storytelling, leaving one with an ambivalence toward the (neurotic & 2-dimensional) central characters & a disinterest in the outcome of the hero’s path.

    YouTubers such as the Critical Drinker (whose drunk Scotsman schtick becomes tedious after a while), present this in a far more effective manner than I can.

    Regarding the story at hand, might I assume the antagonists are the Cardinal & the hero’s religious/moral convictions?

  16. Muddy Avatar

    P.S. I believe the bloke who played Spud in the Trainspotting film adaptation, had previously played the title role of Renton in the play.

  17. Roger Avatar

    These barriers are sometimes missing from modern popular culture storytelling, leaving one with an ambivalence toward the (neurotic & 2-dimensional) central characters & a disinterest in the outcome of the hero’s path.

    Spot on, Muddy.

    It’s one thing for a protagonist to have flaws, but another altogether for them to be the sort of person you’d avoid in real life because they’re simply unpleasant.

    In their quest for “gritty realism”, modern film makers seem to overlook the need for a lead character the proposed audience can identify with.

  18. Anchor What Avatar
    Anchor What

    Mentioned above, Hilary Mantel’s three historical novels (Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies, and The Mirror and The Light) take a much more favourable view of Thomas Cromwell, who in turn has a better opinion of Wolsey. All three are absolutely riveting, giving a “fly on the wall” perspective that even a long TV series cannot do justice to. There is such a series based on Wolf Hall, but you can’t relay what’s in the book without a lot of spoken narrative. Seeing Cromwell walk down a hallway and visit Boleyn pales in comparison with the written description.

  19. Rabz Avatar

    Trainspotting was originally a novel by Irvine Welsh. Soon after publication, the book was adapted for the stage which inspired the subsequent film – which by the way is a superb film.

    Trainspotting is indeed an awesome film. You can’t go wrong with an opening scene featuring one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs in human history, complemented as it is by a magnificent monologue on the banality of modern life. The sequel is hilarious as well. I’ve got the book, but simply couldn’t get through it – Welsh’s writing is definitely an acquired taste.

    A far better book in my opinion was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. I also enjoyed the film (despite transplanting the location and characters from London to Chicago), particularly Jack Black’s character, one of “the musical moron brothers” as described in the film by the protagonist, Rob Gordon. The latter character in the book votes labour, wears black levi’s, leather jackets and Doc Marten 10 holes. All of which I already did back around the time I read the book (circa 1999, just before the film came out) so it certainly resonated with me, as did Rob’s obsession with contemporary music and its relevance to the memorable moments in your life.

    As for this week’s film I do vaguely remember seeing it when I was very young, my father loved it and being the devout Catholic he was told me it was a history lesson about the wickedness of Henry VIII and the integrity of Saint Thomas Moore.

  20. Rabz Avatar

    WTF? Of course, woke knobheads just had to go and remake High Fidelity featuring a black lezzo as the protagonist.

    I won’t be bothering.

    Trigger warning: Link is to the Garudain.

  21. johanna Avatar

    Notice how they always have to ‘remake’ originals created by someone far more talented and authentic.

    Hollywood is dead.

  22. Muddy Avatar

    I liked the sequel to Trainspotting as well, though I did wonder why none of the characters were haunted by – or remembered – the toddler who died of neglect in the first film (I forget the character’s name who fathered it – I think he died in the original). Other than that absence, the highlight was bringing back Begbie, who I thought made the original, even though he wasn’t the antagonist as such. I thought that Renton in the sequel was a bit too beige, though I guess his were the eyes through which we see how his former mates have fared in life. In terms of empathising with a character, it was Spud for me.

  23. Rabz Avatar

    The soundtrack for Trainspotting is also fantastic.

  24. Rabz Avatar

    the highlight was bringing back Begbie

    One of my favourite characters in cinema history. Paddy Mayne in Rogue Heroes is about the only character I can think of who displays that similar “what monstrous violence is he going to engage in next” type vibe. Funnily enough, both are also largely incomprehensible.

  25. Rabz Avatar

    Or is that “unintelligible”?

  26. Mother Lode Avatar
    Mother Lode

    I especially enjoyed the scene where More explains why he would not have the deeply insecure, and all too ready to sell himself, Richard Rich.

    Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

  27. Mother Lode Avatar
    Mother Lode

    Oh, and for a fan of Archer, “Damn you all to Hell” is far too familiar to ignore.

  28. Christine Avatar

    Revisiting to read the review in full. To my mind, a five-star film
    and a five-star review

  29. WolfmanOz Avatar

    Christine says:
    May 21, 2023 at 1:51 pm

    That’s very generous of you Christine.

  30. Louis Litt Avatar
    Louis Litt

    Ah Norfolk – there was a hard drinking backslapping adventurer.
    Richie Rich – yes If my memory is correct he was a study of wickedness – bit of a weed likeFarfraebfrom mayor of castlebridge.

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