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I recently saw an interview for a DVD docu in which Steve McQueen's ex-wife lamented that McQueen didn't get the Best Actor Oscar for The Sand Pebbles. She rolled her eyes and said that, 'the Academy decided to go British,' as if the competition had been hijacked by a conspiracy of snobs.
One look at A Man for All Seasons and we realize that the Academy for once chose wisely. The Sand Pebbles now plays like a flimsy cry for peace hiding underneath three hours of macho posturing. Completely against the 60s grain of Situational Ethics, A Man for All Seasons' essential message still shines, impervious to time: Great men follow the dictates of their conscience, not political expediency. That moral hasn't dated because it was just as valid 3,000 years ago as it is now. An incorruptible man is a rare gem.
Fred Zinnemann (The Nun's Story, The Sundowners) marshals a nigh-perfect production and strives to keep it intimate despite the genre's tendency toward pomp and pagentry. Paul Scofield brings Robert Bolt's powerful words to life in a performance yet to be bettered.
"This is not the stuff of martyrs", Thomas More states, pointing at himself. Even though he calls himself a coward and says he'll welcome any possible way to avoid trouble, the statesman refuses to compromise his convictions to the tide of hypocrisy that surrounds him. The entire establishment of England has yielded to a king determined to break most of the rules of his own coronation oath. Henry makes up any number of weak arguments to justify what is really his personal will to marry Anne Boleyn. It's a matter of the power of the crown against the rule of law, and Thomas More is the only individual brave enough to stand up to the King. As More is a highly respected, personal friend of the crown, he can't simply be declared a traitor and done away with. A Man for All Seasons charts the battle of wills as a series of debates between More and the rest of the world ... his family, his friends, and the bureaucrats that want him to recant. More is happy to withdraw and remain silent on the issues at hand, but his enemies are too insecure to allow that. For them, silence equals passive subversion.
A Man for All Seasons is the equal of any of Robert Bolt's films, including his work for David Lean. Viewers impatient with costume dramas about centuries-old conflicts are completely absorbed by A Man for All Seasons; anyone who's ever had to compromise his ethics or his conscience to keep his job will immediately identify with Thomas More's predicament. Henry VIII doesn't simply want one obstinate rule changed, he would prefer to ignore any law that gets in the way of his personal wishes and interests. Only a couple of high officials have the power to even question the King's judgment; the House of Lords (if that's what the noble chamber pictured here is) folds to the royal will without even a whimper. When the majority has fallen in line, a standout like Thomas More becomes an embarrassment and finally an insult: Who does he think he is? This is the way that honorable men become enemies of the people without even trying.
The under-praised Fred Zinnemann assembles a production that finds a balance between the intimate and the epic. London is a boat ride down the Thames, unless you're on the outs politically, in which case one must walk home in the rain. We never lack for a crowd scene but Bolt's play doesn't need much opening up. Unless all of the locations were constructed sets, this may have been a reasonably budgeted film.
Zinnemann's films are always impeccably cast, and A Man for All Seasons goes for the best people available, not the biggest stars. It of course made an international figure of Paul Scofield, a great actor that made relatively few films. Scofield's biggest roles before this one were in The Train and Carve Her Name with Pride. Scofield is given scores of memorable speeches, explaining himself to his family and arguing the nature of ethics with his friend the Duke of Norfolk. He makes Robert Bolt's dialogues painfully clear, allowing us to share More's deep-held beliefs. When it comes time for the big public showdowns in court, Scofield plays More as a weakened man. The speeches are stirring but don't go for show-stopping oratory. It's truly a great performance.
Wendy Hiller (I Know Where I'm Going!) is More's insecure wife, who complains bitterly while conceding her admiration for him. She's aware that her husband has more affection for his daughter Margaret, played by Susannah York. York marries a dunderheaded but honest young man (Corin Redgrave), who must return to the Catholic faith before getting More's consent. Interestingly, the highly ethical More sees nothing wrong with serving as his son-in-law's conscience, and forcing him to recant his chosen position on religion. The play softens this issue by making the young man seem rather wishy-washy with his opinions.
Robert Shaw's Henry VIII hasn't an honest bone in his body and deeply resents More 'flaunting' his principles in his face. At least that's the way he sees it. Shaw's KIng is almost comical when he tries to match wits with More, trotting out terrible, self-serving rationales why the Pope had no right to sanction his first marriage -- to his brother's widow! The King disappears from the story but is still felt through the sinister actions of his secretary Thomas Cromwell. Leo McKern (The Day the Earth Caught Fire) is appropriately scheming and ruthless as the King's 'administrator', which he defines as someone who sets right and wrong aside and sees to it that the King gets his way. Cromwell is a brilliant man in his own right but his dedication to blind loyalty is hateful. One reason A Man for All Seasons hasn't dated is that we now see Cromwells every night on television, excusing their craven acts in the name of service to someone in a higher political office. If anyone is the opposite of Thomas More, it's Cromwell.
That brings us to the young John Hurt, who was then just starting out on a long film career: Alien, Rob Roy, 1984. Hurt plays the penniless student Richard Rich as an object lesson for the young and ambitious. Rich refuses More's offer of a teaching position in favor of the offices and honors promised by Cromwell. By the end of the show Rich seems to have acquired a title and a position simply by providing the confidential information to bring More down. John Hurt shows us Rich's need to 'be somebody,' even after More tries to sell him on the benefits of a quiet life as a teacher ... a quiet life More devoutly wishes he could retreat to.
Also shining is Nigel Davenport, who appears in dozens of movies but rarely received major press attention. His Duke of Norfolk is the King's man, fulfilling his duty while frequently grumbling about the cheating and corruption around him. The Duke must compromise every day, yet he cherishes More as the only honest man in England. We get a firm lesson in political necessity when More makes a public scene to alienate Norfolk. Already shunned, More spares Norfolk the burden of his friendship by turning him away. As with any great play, all of the characters Thomas More question and define his true nature.
That leaves Orson Welles, who turns in a better-than-average cameo, and nice smaller turns from Colin Blakely (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) as More's servant, and Yootha Joyce (Die! Die! My Darling!) as a woman offering a bribe. Vanessa Redgrave is on camera for a couple of minutes as Henry's new bride Anne Boleyn; she'd go from show-biz offspring to top film star in just a year, with Morgan, Blow-Up and then Camelot.
Sony's DVD of A Man for All Seasons is a good enhanced transfer of a film that hasn't always looked this attractive on Television or home video. It's been remastered with a 5.1 track; George Delerue's score is quite handsome.
Listed as a Special Edition, the disc has only one extra, a good one. Light Source & Imagery's Selina Lin has assembled three scholars (Dr. John Guy, Dr. Gerard Wegemer, Alison Weir) to give a thoughtful rundown on The Life of Saint Thomas More. The featurette expands on the film's portrait to let us know that More was at least a bit less perfect. A main issue in the Bolt play is that More seeks only silence, but the crown won't leave him in peace. In actuality, More broke his silence after resigning his office by writing many books that could easily be interpreted as critical of the power of monarchs in conflict with the law. So at some level he purposely made himself a thorn in Henry VIII's side.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Man for All Seasons rates:
From Jordan Benedict, 2.16.07:
Morning, Glenn. Actors are self-possessed by nature. All will gladly accept applause and praise for a good performance, while a few -- the best of them -- will work tirelessly to improve their craft without fanfare.
My first trip to England was in the summer of 1965. Of the many highlights was seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon. There was a riotously funny production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Peter Brooke, who is still my favorite stage director, and a brilliant version of Timon of Athens with Paul Scofield.
After the play, my mother, sister and I went to a nearby restaurant for tea (not Liptons, a proper English tea with cakes and crustless sandwiches) that was frequented by theatregoers and actors alike. Our luck. Scofield and a female companion sat down at a table next to us. All three of us told him how much we had enjoyed his performance, for which he was appreciative, then I asked him if there were any plans to film Timon. He said: "No, it's a stage piece. Besides, I've never had any luck with acting on screen."
Forward to 1967. Paul Scofield was awarded the Oscar for best performance by a male actor in A Man For All Seasons. He wasn't present at the ceremony. His co-star Wendy Hiller accepted the award on his behalf. -- Jordan Benedict
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