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 !