A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS —–the story of Thomas More, standing up to King Henry VIII over Henry’s break with the Pope to satisfy personal pique. Political skulduggery meets personal honor. This 1966 historical period drama has no spectacle, little pomp or pageantry to be swept up in and boasts not a dram of action. Aside from the costumes, there’s not much to feast eyes on. What gets more than ample nourishment here are mind and spirit.
England, 1529. The lusty, blustering, charismatic and complicated (to put it mildly) 34-year-old King (Robert Shaw) wishes to sever with the Church in Rome in order to divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn. The 120-minute film covers the last six years in the life of the modest, resolute Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), the Lord Chancellor of England. He battled with Henry over the King’s attempt at a twisted legal & morally unethical end run, and suffered as a result. It cost him his head, but not his dignity, conscience or good name: More went down in history as a pillar of principle.
“If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that abhorrence, anger, pride, and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice, and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little – even at the risk of being heroes..”
Director Fred Zinnemann had an unbroken string of critical and popular hits going back to the late 40s until he dropped a notable 1964 bomb with Behold A Pale Horse. He came back victorious with this sterling treatment of Robert Bolt’s hit 1960 play, and Bolt, coming off back-to-back megahits Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, adapted his stage work to suit the big screen. Big names were sought to secure what didn’t seem to be box-office material, but Burton, O’Toole, Olivier, Harris and Guinness were unavailable, so Scofield, 44, with only three prior film roles took the lead: he’d played the role in the original stage run. The rich, dense wordplay Bolt crafts for More and Zinnemann’s calm direction license a quietly magnificent performance from Scofield: wise, humorous, patient, eloquent, dignified and forceful. *
Formidable talent filled out the cast: Leo McKern (blunt yet cagey schemer Thomas Cromwell), Wendy Hiller (More’s steadfast, fuming wife) and Susannah York (their distressed daughter), Orson Welles (exuding noxious air as Cardinal Wolsey), Nigel Davenport ( a zesty Duke of Norfolk) and 26-year old John Hurt (Richard Rich, aptly christened betrayer).
“The nobility of England, my Lord, would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount, but you’ll labor like scholars over a bulldog’s pedigree.”
“Our Lord said it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world and lose his soul…but for Wales?”
The actors took salary cuts, the fickle weather magically cooperated, Zinnemann brought it in handsome and sharp for $2,000,000. Defying studio projections, the movie was a hit with the not-yet-dumbed-down public, coming in 5th for the year, grossing $28,400,000 just in the US. Reviews were adulatory and it went up for eight Academy Awards, winning six. The takeaways: Best Picture, Actor (Scofield), Director, Screenplay, Cinematography and Costume Design. Unclaimed were Robert Shaw and Wendy Hiller in the Supporting acting categories. **
With Corin Redgrave, Colin Blakely, Vanessa Redgrave (as Anne Boleyn—she did the part for free), Jack Gwillim and Yootha Joyce. Fine music score from Georges Delerue, just one of the three-hundred fifty-one credits in his 45-year career.
* Zinnemann: “As far as Columbia was concerned this was a very modest, and in a box office sense, totally unpromising project. It had many counts against it: ‘Nobody wants to see a costume movie’; very little action, let alone violence, no sex, no overt love story and, most importantly, no stars, in fact hardly any actors that the US public had ever heard of. No wonder the budget was tiny and no attention was paid to us by the front office during the shooting – this is of course always a blessing.”
Scofield, notified of his Oscar win: “Oh, I suppose my wife and I will open a bottle of champagne with another couple.” On his director: “Fred Zinnemann was a jewel. A calm, rational man, quietly authoritative and in perfect control of the myriad aspects of filmmaking. He had a simplicity in his understanding of A Man For All Seasons which reflected the simplicities and complex resoluteness of Sir Thomas More without apparent effort or contrivance.”
** I like this classy, stately film (many find its dispassionate approach boring) but if I was allocating those 1966 Oscars I’d have given the superb Scofield a pass for another besieged intellectual, Richard Burton’s brilliant work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We prefer The Sand Pebbles as Best Picture and Cinematography would be a tough call between the un-nominated Grand Prix and The Blue Max. Direction, with no slight to Zinnemann, I’d toss-up between Robert Wise steering the gunboat on The Sand Pebbles or Mike Nichols harvesting brimstone in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? I’ll grant this Script and Costume Design. They didn’t ask me.