A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)

A_Man_for_All_Seasons_(1966_movie_poster)A difference in religious conviction can pose quite the hurdle to relationships. I know it became a cause for conversation when my parents got married – my mother was a lifelong Catholic and my father was an Episcopalian. My father wasn’t comfortable signing a document promising to raise his children in the Catholic church, and as a result they were not able to get married in the Catholic church my mother had originally planned. After years in the Episcopalian church following this, my mother eventually returned to the Catholic church on her own. The pull runs deep.

The origin of this split, between the Catholic and the Anglican church, is the subject of our most recent blog film. A Man for All Seasons is a British drama from 1966 that focuses on the life of Sir Thomas More. The theme of the film is that Sir Thomas, as Lord Chancellor, refuses to go against his beliefs and sign a letter asking the Pope to annul King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that the King can marry Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas feels so strongly in his conviction that this violates the Catholic doctrine that he is willing to resign his post in order to take this position. It is the beginning for a great deal of hardship he and his family must then face. Sir Thomas also refuses to take an Oath of Supremacy pronouncing Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The King will have his way, and as head of the Church of England, it is announced that he has authority to override the Pope and retain religious purity in his divorce.

A house divided indeed! In our modern pluralistic culture, it’s easy to underestimate what a political and economic power the Church was in More’s time, and how profound and often calamitous the changes of the Protestant Reformation could be. Yes, calamitous – simultaneous to the events depicted in this film, the Münster Rebellion was playing out in Germany. (Never heard of it? Check out Dan Carlin’s “Prophets of Doom.”) This was not a society in which one could simply “attend the church of your choice” and go on with one’s life.

The story of Henry VIII is fairly well known, even in America, and a popular one to retell. The iron-willed monarch, serial bridegroom and occasional uxoricide. Everything done to excess. And of course his break with the Church of Rome. But while Henry does show up in A Man for All Seasons, he spends most of the film wisely relegated to the background, leaving the spotlight on More. More is as astute as he is principled. When his sovereign engages in action he cannot support, he quietly and respectfully leaves his service. When presented with a compulsory oath condoning Henry’s actions, he refuses to sign it while assiduously refusing to say anything that could be construed as disloyal or treasonous under the law, despite his true feelings being well known to friends and enemies alike.

One powerful aspect of the film is the notion of betrayal. Sir Thomas is deeply admired by many, and this proves on several occasions to also be a liability. At the first sign of fissure in his position of power and authority, jealousy kicks in for characters like Richard Rich. Rich goes to Sir Thomas early in the film to seek out a position in the court. Sir Thomas explains the corruptions there briefly and advises Rich to seek employment as an educator instead. This doesn’t sit well with Rich, and he persists his inquiry to no avail. Later, Sir Thomas’ enemies call on Rich to dish dirt on Sir Thomas, and Rich is all too willing to engage with others to bring Sir Thomas down. For this work, he is rewarded with a position as the Attorney General of Wales. He admired Sir Thomas for his principles and fortitude – but he certainly showed him no loyalty when it push came to shove and when his own self interest was on the line. Through this plot point, we see how rare Sir Thomas’ character is. It begs the question of the audience – how strongly could you stand by your convictions if your own life and well-being were being threatened? This is the theme throughout the movie that I found most interesting. And it’s something I wonder frequently about myself. How much am I willing to risk and put on the line for what I believe in?

I can answer that question for myself. While I certainly consider myself a principled man, I am much more pragmatic than Sir Thomas. At a certain point in the story I felt myself identifying with the characters friendly to More who beg him: just sign the damn paper. But, like I said, it was a different time. In some ways he reminds me of previous Best Picture subject Mohandas Gandhi, with his near-fanaticism of principle, wherein my admiration for him continues to increase even alongside a growing sense of exasperation. Like one character says of William Wallace in Braveheart, “Uncompromising men are easy to admire.”

I found this film to have two particularly strong points. The first is visual – the scenery and cinematography. Several historic buildings are depicted, rather beautifully in fact. I would love to learn more about what went into the process of scouting and acquiring the locations to shoot. I wonder if any of the locations used were the actual locations of events depicted?

The second thing I really loved was the dialogue Paul Scofield gets as More, as he reasons his way through his conscience and his predicament. A lawyer by trade, he truly has a jurist’s mind. When presented with the oath that will be his undoing, his first approach is to study the wording, hoping to find a loophole that will allow him to take it without violating his conscience. Under questioning, he parries his enemies arguments, all the while never directly endorsing nor condemning the oath. And after final judgement is made on him, then and only then does he eviscerate the legality of the king’s actions, point by point. That really did happen, by the way, and was recorded in court documents.

Mouse is right about the cinematography. The scene I liked the most is the one where King Henry makes a surprise visit to Sir Thomas to discuss the potential for seeking annulment/divorce from the Pope. He arrives in a beautiful long boat, with an impressive group of rowers. The rowing is coordinated and graceful, and looks like a dance. Also, the colors in the film are striking. Mouse told me that they used a different method of color processing at this point in cinematic history. That may be fine.

I do want to mention one other plotline I really enjoyed – there is a young man named William Roper who wishes to marry Sir Thomas’ daughter Meg. Sir Thomas firmly tells him no several times, so long as Roper is a Lutheran and not a Roman Catholic. Seeing the corruption under the King and how it impacts Sir Thomas causes Roper to alter his religious perspectives considerably. We are able, as an audience, to see the tension between one’s personal religious beliefs and convictions and the loyalties one feels when witnessing how power, politics and organized religion combine. It’s a powerful lesson, and still relevant to this day. All in all, I am glad I watched this film even if its direct subject matter isn’t chief among my interests. Enough universal themes are explored to make it thought provoking for any audience.

After his death, More continued to draw admiration for his unwavering moral stance. In what could be seen as an ultimate vindication of his steadfastness, both the Catholic and Anglican churches view him as a martyr. Four centuries after his execution, in 1935 (the year James Whale’s great Bride of Frankenstein as released and then shamefully neglected at the Academy Awards), Sir Thomas More was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

Also nominated in 1966:
Alfie
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming
The Sand Pebbles
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Next film: HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)

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