Today’s royal movie review is the 1966 Academy Award winning film, A Man for all Seasons. The movie starred Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More and Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII of England. The movie is based on a play written by Robert Bolt and also starred Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More.
The premise of the film surrounds Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, and his refusal to swear and oath recognizing Henry VIII’s position as Supreme head of the Church of England, something that More, as a devout Catholic, could not do. The movie depicts very well the religious wars and debates that the Protestant Reformation and Henry VIII’s desire to separate from the Catholic Church sparked. Scofield wonderfully portrays More as a wise and intelligent man who is also kind. His strength is sticking to his religious convictions in the face of certain death. By the time Henry VIII had divorced his wife, Catherine of Aragon, many people who crossed the will of the king met with the executioner’s ax. So More was not blind to the potential fate his convictions may lead.
I also enjoy movies about the Mafia in the US both true and fictionalized and the parallel between Mafia movies and historical movies cannot be denied. Both have immense power struggles and a strong leader at the top while underlings vie for power. In this battle for power people are stabbed in the back (often literally) and removed permanently if you stand in the way. In this movie a young man, named Richard Rich, played by a very young John Hurt, is seeking a position at court and when More refuses to give him that position and recommends he become a teacher instead. Insulted and will do anything gain power, Rich begins conspiring with others who would like More’s position to bring about his down fall.
More retains his innocence when charges of treason are brought against him. Given that there is no record of More’s position on why he refuses to sign the oath, lies are made up by his enemies. More, ever the shrewd lawyer, remains silent on his motives so he cannot incriminate himself. However, his fate is sealed and at a trial, overseen by Rich, More is found guilty of treason and is beheaded.
The film is wonderful and it depicts a man of high moral values and personal integrity. But the movie, and the true life events, does give me a moment to pause. Here in the 21st century More’s convictions seems a bit odd. We live in a time when both the physical and ideological wars between the Catholic Church and Mainline Protestants are over. While More’s conviction to not sign an oath is commendable the movie does depict that even More himself held a great prejudice toward Protestants. Also, in my opinion, More could still have signed the oath with a clean conscious. As a Catholic, More would not have been agreeing that Henry VIII was the head of the Catholic Church, but merely the Church of England. His acceptance of the oath would have recognized the immutable fact that Henry VIII was indeed the head of the Church of England and More could have maintained his allegiance to the Catholic Church and the Pope.
That is applying 21st century logic and unfortunately in More’s time period that would have been unheard of. In the 1500s there was only One True Church and if you were Catholic, it was the Catholic Church and if you were a Protestant it was the reformed Church. Each saw one another as a heretic so to even acknowledge the legitimacy of one another was to acknowledge a heretic, who was in league with the devil, which came at the price of your very own soul. It would take centuries for peace to come between these two warring brothers of Christianity. For me I can applaud and admire More’s conviction and integrity but I feel an undercurrent of sadness because of how senseless it all seems. I also feel the most important aspect the movie shows is that More stuck to the Law and in his silence did not break the Law so his execution was illegal and unjust.
This movie is a classic and deserved all the Academy Awards it won. It won for best picture and Scofield won for best actor. The movie also won Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, cinematography, costume design and Best Director (Fred Zinnemann)
It was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Shaw and Best Supporting Actress for Wendy Hiller as Alice More. If you haven’t seen this film or it has been a while, I suggest you treat yourself to a viewing.