1960s, Biopic, Drama

A Man for All Seasons (1966)


Director: Fred Zinnemann

By Roderick Heath

Paul Scofield, who died this week at the age of 86, did not make many movies—a grand total of 19 feature films. A stage actor by creed, he nonetheless brought a subtlety and lucidity to the medium that most actors on the big screen barely suggest. Not that Scofield, with features of a sort of rudely chiselled nobility, was ever in any danger of becoming a teen heart-throb. He did not need to apologise for anything, except perhaps for Scorpio (1973), a bewildering sham directed by the reliably awful Michael Winner that managed to totally waste the talents of Scofield, Alain Delon, and Burt Lancaster. How that one happened, I know not.

To pay tribute to Scofield’s film career, I could have written about his beautifully low-key, heroic turn as Virginia McKenna’s mentor and brother-in-arms in Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), his sublimely serpentine performance as a fixated Nazi culture thief in The Train (1966), his weighty, haunted inhabitations of Charles VI in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) and The Ghost in Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990), his hilarious and heartbreaking turn as Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show (1994), and his foreboding Judge Danforth in The Crucible (1996). But it is A Man for All Seasons that is his best claim to cinematic fame, and that’s fine with me, being as it was, an extension of a role he had played about 2,000 times on the stage in Robert Bolt’s fine play of the same name. Bolt wrote the screenplay for the film and pared back the material into a sharper, more concise work. A Man for All Seasons is the sort of film that tends to be patronised by many critics these days, apparently under the impression that intelligent acting and dialogue and skillful, measured direction are liabilities. Yet compare it to, for example, the gothic idiocy of Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth films, and one cringes at the decline in our supposedly clever contemporary culture.

Bolt had worked with David Lean twice by this time, providing the scripts for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. A Man for All Seasons proved to be his third great film in a row. Bolt was gifted with a droll insight into politics and how they become interlaced with human character, already well presented in the pithily caricatured Bolsheviks of Zhivago and the final scenes of Lawrence. A Man for All Seasons is one of the few historical films that successfully portrays the past as a recognisable precursor to our own era by concentrating not on battles and pageantry, but on statecraft, corruption, legal wrangling, petty bureaucracy, and the eternal clash between private conscience and public duty. The film had a perfect director in Fred Zinnemann, the Swiss-born maestro who gained his second Best Director Oscar here. Zinnemann was one of the great observational directors, with a rich sense of physical context and unobtrusive realism, and an interest in highly conflicted protagonists.

Zinnemann’s eye presents a Renaissance Britain blessedly free of both ye-olde-isms and modish cinema tricks. As he had done in The Nun’s Story (1959), Zinnemann offsets the tortuous nature of human conscience with continual reference to the cycles of nature, especially appropriate here, where the seasons of the title are reflected in the shifts between acts. A Man for All Seasons is, of course, the story of the downfall of Sir Thomas More, the scholar, lawyer, judge, and eventual High Chancellor of England after Cardinal Wolsey, who was persecuted and eventually executed for treason for refusing to support Henry VIII’s ruthless reformation and remarriage to Anne Boleyn. More became a Catholic saint, but Bolt’s conception of the man is most amusingly drawn when Scofield pats his chest and says, “This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.” The film begins with More being called away from a party with his family—wife Alice (Wendy Hiller), daughter Margaret (Susannah York), and friends, like the Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport)—to consult with Wolsey (Orson Welles), who wants More to support his efforts to secure a divorce for the king from his barren wife Catherine of Aragon. This scene swiftly sketches the succession of traits in More’s character and Scofield’s ability to embody them—wry wit, cagey intellect, unflappable cool, and moral gravity.

Whilst possessing an abundantly expressive face, Scofield’s first and most devastating weapon as an actor was his voice, which he used like a symphony orchestra to emphasise, explore, and imply the ideas in his lines. Note the staccato clip when outlining the hidden agenda of Wolsey’s intentions, “Pressure. Applied to the Church. Church houses, Church property;” the egoless but knowing way he says “Me, rather than Cromwell” in reply to the proposition that the oily functionary Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) become the next Chancellor; the soft, appeasing, but firm way he says “I thought Your Grace was wrong;” the severity of his pronouncement, “No, Your Grace. I will not help you” that makes it certain that despite his desire to “govern the country with prayer,” he’s no pansy-assed idealist or foolish fanatic, but a statesman of rigid will.

Scofield’s More continues to bob, weave, duck, and strike with brainpower—the cinema’s first, and possibly last, intellectual action hero. Far from wanting to become a sacrificial lamb, More sees himself as not just bound by duty to preserve his family and himself, but also by his Christian Humanist conception of religious duty to “serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind,” to survive in the best way possible. As stoutly as any Jean Claude Van Damme kickboxer, he refuses to bend, break, or back down. He goes toe to toe with the best the newly repressive English state can throw at him. Everyone else shivers when contemplating the ferocious Cromwell. More only sneers in reply to his tactics: “You threaten like a dockyard bully!” Only dirty tricks finally ensnare him.

More, the utterly righteous man, is ultimately brought down by the one thing he can never admit—utterly pragmatic ambition in the form of Richard Rich (John Hurt), who had repeatedly appealed to More to save him from himself. But More could only be honest with Rich—he was just not the kind of man who could serve the state like More. Rich “gains the world but loses his soul,” as More puts it in his heartbroken final entreaty. It is the worst, but most appropriate fate for More—he is undone not by an equal adversary but specifically by mediocrity. Yet it’s the rich humanity that Scofield reveals in More, not just the brilliance and the morality, that makes the character rivet our attention. His sly, sarcastic grin when he regards his daughter in the company of William Roper (Corin Redgrave), and the way he fends off Roper’s gauche, strident conscientiousness. The kiss he gives to Alice when she admits her jealousy of his and Margaret’s intellectual bond. His momentary dissolution into despair when his family visits him in his cell in the Tower of London. The dry humour he employs in defending himself that threatens to make his trial a disaster for the prosecution. Scofield’s bright attentive eyes reveal a mind always contemplating, absorbing, thinking. Not that it’s a one-man show.

Scofield is surrounded by some of the best acting in the careers of Welles, Hiller, York, Redgrave, McKern, Hurt, and Robert Shaw, whose appearance as King Henry is perfection. Bolt deliberately characterized Henry as younger than he was at the time of these events, presenting the energetic, capricious monarch of Henry’s early days rather than a flabby sybarite of Holbein’s portrait and Charles Laughton’s cinematic portrayal. Shaw literally leaps into the film, getting mud on his shoes after jumping from his royal barge into the Thames mud, his courtiers waiting in stricken apprehension for his reaction—which turns out to be a madly pleased bark. This is a man used to being the absolute barometer of life in his kingdom, and he will kick down any barrier between him and satisfaction. He needs More’s blessing for his remarriage “because you’re honest, and what’s more you’re seen to be honest.”

Thus Thomas, one of the few men Henry truly admires, must be destroyed—regretfully, cautiously, but ultimately without scruple. More’s method of resistance, his silence, is supposed to release all of them from the situation, but in fact condemns him because it infers an indirect protest. Despite his protestations, ultimately he is bound to a final point of conscience that he will not avert, alter, or obfuscate when finally cornered. Scofield only raises his voice to a shout in the very last moments of his trial, when he has been convicted and sentenced and he cannot alter the outcome, bellowing the final, bald fact of why he has been condemned: he “would not bend to the marriage.” Zinnemann refuses to overplay the moment, instead cutting to a long shot with More’s back to us and the result of his outcry shown instead by the immediate eruption of the crowd.

A Man for All Seasons is perhaps the most ’60s of 1960s Oscar winners. As well as being defined against other, worldlier types, More is also defined against Roper, a satirically ardent, young idealist who is vociferous in his moral judgments—he has become a Lutheran and rails against the corrupt Catholic Church—but is all too willing revert to Catholicism to marry Margaret. More repeatedly has to force him to analyse and curtail his own statements and reflect on their consequence like an old-school liberal unionist reining in the radical hippie. Indeed, More must remind himself constantly to be moderate. “I do none harm. I say none harm. I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith, I long not to live,” is More’s epigram for his own fate.


3 thoughts on “A Man for All Seasons (1966)

  1. I have loved this movie for years, and your review is exactly right about the cast and especially Scofield’s great gifts that make this more than a stagy morality tale. Robert Shaw truly turns out a monarch and all that implies. But believe it or not, I did not know until I read this that Richard Rich was John Hurt. He looks so different, but his part is memorable. Only Susannah York seems just a little less than her part warrants. I still hear “That man’s bad” ringing in my ears like a broken bell.


  2. James Reece says:

    What, In passing, only two comments, including Rod’s “Hmmm”?
    What futile words could scratch a passing thought in the granite of that man’s role, -as born to play Thomas More?
    The identity of Thomas More and Paul Scofield lay in who they were NOT.
    They were both consumate actors who acted within another’s play.
    They acted on who they were, through eliminating what they were not.
    Humbling, possible and eternal.
    How does it really matter what you or I say about a man?


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