1966's A Man For All Seasons documents the clash of wills between England's King Henry VIII and his Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More. A film adaptation of the stage play, the movie is basically a series of conversations; no battle scenes or action adventure. What makes it so engrossing is the conversations are virtually all matters of the highest affairs of state and, in many instances, matters of life and death. It helps that the conversations are among people of intelligence, humor and passionate conviction, and that they take place amid the gorgeous settings and lush costuming of Tudor England.
England Needs an Heir
The basic problem at the heart of the story is King Henry's desire and his country's need for a male heir. Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) has no son; if he were to die without one, the result could be civil war and a bloody struggle for the crown. England needs stability and for that the King needs a son. Henry is sure that his mistress Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave in what is almost a cameo) can give him that.
The catch is that Henry is already married. His plan is to pressure the Pope to annul his marriage to his current queen to enable him to marry another. Unfortunately, the Pope already gave Henry a dispensation to allow him to marry the current queen, his brother's widow, and is tired of being jerked around.
Caught in the middle is Thomas More (Paul Scofield), a member of the King's High Council who becomes Lord Chancellor early into the story.
A Man of Conscience
More is a man of deeply felt religious belief and total honesty. And this proves to be his downfall. The clash between king and pope reaches the point where Henry finally breaks with the Catholic Church and names himself head of the church in England. This is something that More cannot support, and he resigns as Chancellor.
It is important to understand that More is not a troublemaker or rabblerouser. He sincerely wants to support and help his king to the extent that his conscience will allow, and when he reaches the point where he can no longer support the king's actions, More retreats into silence and retirement from the public scene.
But King Henry will not allow even that. More's reputation for absolute honesty is too well-known, so that even his silence looks like opposition. Henry and his court cannot allow More to remain silent, he must be made to speak, and speak in support of the king's new position, and if he does not speak, he must be destroyed.
A Man for All Seasons Performances
The casting and performances here are uniformly flawless. Shaw's Henry VIII is autocratic and headstrong - in one moment he is a charming friend and an instant later, you see the imperious absolute monarch. Wendy Hiller is Lady Alice, More's illiterate, stubborn, but loving wife, and Susannah York is Lady Margaret, his adored overeducated daughter. Court schemer Thomas Cromwell is played by Leo McKern, and the ambitious to the point of treachery young Richard Rich by John Hurt.
And Paul Scofield as More is downright awesome. Scofield was primarily a stage actor and here he is reprising his stage role. Scofield's filmography is slight - this is the performance of his that is a Must See.
Credits and Awards
A Man For All Seasons was directed by Fred Zinneman, and scripted by Robert Bolt, who also wrote the stage play.
Six Oscars, including most of the big ones, went to A Man For All Seasons - Best Picture, Best Director for Zinneman, Best Actor for Scofield, and Best Screenplay for Bolt.