Sir Thomas More had the misfortune of getting in the way of perhaps one of the most notorious kings in history, and it proved costly. It is the early 1500s in England, and the Reformation has shaken the world but Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) has his own plans for the church in his country. He is bent on getting his marriage annulled by the pop,e because young Anne Boleyn will be much more likely to give a healthy heir to the throne.
A Man For All Seasons focuses on the position of More who at the time was Lord Chancellor of England. First, in talking with Cardinal Wolsey, More resolves not to sign the letter to the pope on the king’s behalf, because it goes against his conscience. Later, in his dealings with Thomas Cromwell, More resigns rather than to sign an oath making Henry VIII the supreme leader of the church in England.
Except there is more to it than that. More certainly was not a dissident or a rebellious political figure. Far from it. At least in the film, he is portrayed by Paul Scofield as a constantly even-keeled and gracious man in all circumstances. When a young man named Rich (John Hurt) sold More out for a high title, in a Christ-like response More has only pity for the fellow. Selling his soul for the world is worse enough, but Rich did it for Wales.
Not even the pleading of his newly-wedded daughter (Susannah York), or his strong-willed wife (Wendy Hiller) can change More’s conviction as he wastes away in the Tower of London. Sir Thomas went calmly to his death confident that his faith in his Lord would give him eternal peace. He died there for a seemingly trivial reason at the hands of men who used to be his friends. But he died with his conscience intact.
As I acknowledged, Paul Scofield is such a serene force during the storm of this film. The portly Orson Welles and Leo McKern seem to fit their roles well, and Robert Shaw has enough bluster to pull off Henry VIII. A young John Hurt turns in a fine performance as the Judas of the film and Nigel Davenport is commendable as More’s exasperated friend the Duke.
Adapted from a stage play, here is another highly acclaimed film from director Fred Zinnemann. Perhaps it is the period drama, but this film strikes me as very English and it did very well for itself. I suppose because it’s a tale that is universal and audiences love to identify with men such as Sir Thomas More. Zinnemann was always superb at capturing the inner struggles that humanity is often forced to confront, and he did it once again here.