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Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Man for All Seasons

The winner of the 1966 Oscar for Best Picture was A Man for All Seasons, directed by Fred Zinneman and adapted from his own play by Robert Bolt. It won six Oscars total, including for Zinneman and Paul Scofield, as the martyred king's counsel Sir Thomas More.

The film is extremely tasteful, like something you would see from the BBC on PBS. The material has been covered extensively, most recently by the TV series The Tudors and the book, TV series and play Wolf Hall. A Man for All Seasons focuses solely on More, though, and his objection to Henry VIII (a raucous Robert Shaw) being named head of the Church of England and his divorce and marriage to Anne Boleyn.

What's different about this story is that Anne Boleyn is barely seen (she is once, in a cameo by Vanessa Redgrave for which she received no pay). The major players, in addition to More, are Thomas Cromwell, the scheming secretary (who was the focus of Wolf Hall), and a society-climbing Richard Rich (John Hurt, in one of his first roles), who is so eager for glory that he commits perjury.

It is Scofield as More, the man who will not let down his principles, that is the backbone of the film. Early in the film, he goes to meet Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles, made to look like death warmed over) who argues that More is the only person who has not agreed, Still, after Wolsey's death, More is named Chancellor, but will not accept what Henry wants, even as the King shouts at him while a house full of guests overhear.

More thinks it will all blow over but Henry, probably through Cromwell, makes everyone sign an oath testifying they are in favor of the Henry's elevation to head of church. More declines, but in a legal argument says his not signing is not an objection. "Qui tacet consentire," he says, meaning "silence implies consent."

Movies about English royalty have always been some of my favorites, such as The Lion in Winter, but A Man for All Seasons is much more sedate. It doesn't revel in the palace intrigue, although it is there. Instead it attempts to make a full-blooded figure of More, and tries to understand his position. Interestingly, I think today most people might think his obstinance infuriating (his wife, Wendy Hiller, certainly does so). More was dogmatic to the point that he gave up his life rather than defy the laws of the Church.

Zinneman directs impeccably, though. He's an interesting figure, making films in almost all genres, from High Noon to The Nun Story to Julia. The film sticks to the nobility--we see few commoners--but the time period seems right, helped by a score by Georges Delerue.

Now that I've looked at all five films, which one would I have voted for? It's a tough call, but probably Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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