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A Man for All Seasons

A Man For All Seasons - 1966

Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Written by Robert Bolt
Based on his 1960 Play

Starring Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Orson Welles, Robert Shaw
Susannah York & John Hurt

A Man For All Seasons is one of those films I knew nothing about until actually watching it upon a friend's recommendation. Going by it's title, I expected weddings, dances, celebration and fun, for to me calling someone a man for all seasons meant he was a joy to be around no matter the occasion - a more accurate title might have been My Head, But Not My Honor or Till My Death I Be True. I'd honestly gone through a period of my life thinking A Man For All Seasons might be a musical. Well, it immediately hooked me - there's such an immediacy to a cardinal sending a sealed summons to be hastily carried along the Thames, while strains of Georges Delerue's magnificent old-time, rousing and vibrant score gets a rare chance to shine. This is one of those films where the opening credits really put you in the mood for what's to come - and after seeing it the first time I soon watched it again, and again. Ted Moore's beautiful photography on the river also adds to the mystique.

So, what we eventually find wrapped in the 16th Century tapestry of this Fred Zinnemann film is a profile in courage - a man, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), who steadfastly refuses to condone the way King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) goes about trying to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and then will not brook Henry having himself declared "Supreme Head of the Church of England" - all in an effort to marry a woman who can provide him with a male heir. Even when it becomes clear that his refusal to acknowledge King Henry as Head of the Church will cost him his life, More continues, because to him it's a sacred matter that he could never square with himself. It's the kind of principled bravery that's admirable, even if to many of us the matter itself is ultimately meaningless. We need more people who stand by their beliefs, and not sell out over money or fear.

There's a treasure trove of fine performances and notable names in the film's roster - Paul Schofield himself won the Best Actor Academy Award for 1967 - carrying on where he left off by playing More in the stage version. Robert Shaw, as the effervescent, volatile Henry VIII, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar - amazingly, it was the only time he was ever nominated. Orson Welles makes an early splash as Cardinal Wolsey, who holds the lofty post of Lord Chancellor when the film begins - it doesn't appear to me that Welles is completely sober, or else his performance has an extra layer to it. Leo McKern features as the Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell - someone he was born to play - and John Hurt makes an early screen appearance for him as the slimy, unfaithful Richard Rich. Susannah York plays More's daughter Margaret, Nigel Davenport the Duke of Norfolk and Vanessa Redgrave is Anne Boleyn. Wendy Hiller was also nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar - playing More's wife Alice. It's truly a stacked cast, and everyone is a joy to watch.

The costume design in this film won an Oscar - there's no surprise there. I can't attest to what the 1500s were really like, but A Man For All Seasons makes every effort to take us back to this Tudor period. Today, CGI would be used to create a film with a much grander visual scale to it - but that would be an utter disservice to A Man For All Seasons, because it's a film that relies on a certain intimacy to proceedings. Instead of the vast machinery of state, it's about a family man forced to make excruciating personal sacrifices for his own soul. It's a human story, and thus relatable to anyone who might drop in to watch it. We're all constantly faced with situations along the lines of : do I lie to keep the peace, or tell the truth despite the fact there will be bad consequences? How far are we willing to go? So while the various costumes are breathtaking the setting takes a cue from the play and keeps us confined to small spaces. Absolutely the right choice.

Visually, there's an interesting motif that keeps on springing up - a double-sided one that consists of various gargoyles contrasted with nature. The former are man-made constructs, lifeless and forever-frozen in mid-grimace representing the fallible works of man, and the latter alive, colourful and forever in an ecstatic dance representing the works of God. It's to the latter that Sir Thomas More turns to in A Man For All Seasons. Director of Photography Ted Moore also won an Oscar for Best Cinematography at a time when there were still two awards being handed out - for colour and black & white. His work is entrancing from the get-go and incorporates the Thames (here the River Beaulieu) into much of it's flow. Moore was behind the camera shooting many of the early James Bond films, right from Dr. No on through to The Man With the Golden Gun - this would be his only Oscar win.

Watching A Man For All Seasons again was emotional for me - the More family is one that's easy to become attached to, and the scenes where Thomas is confronted by his family during one last short visit are extremely sad, because family is timeless and it's easy to imagine what such a situation would be like. I can understand why he can't back down - how he'd be destroying his sense of self-worth if he were to concede finally and go against everything he was fighting for within himself and with the king's minions. It would have been easier to do so earlier - but the longer a person holds out, the more important the issue seems to become. The final scenes show More's skill when it comes to the law, and how worthless that will be - because the result has already been decided. In the end, when we find out what happened to all of the characters - the various executions etc. - we find a deep sense of irony when we learn that Richard Rich eventually became Chancellor of England and died an old man, in his bed. That's politics for you.

Well over 50 years after it's release, I still hear about this film gaining new fans which continue to keep it's shine brightly glowing so many years after it was made. As far as I know the only person in the cast who's still alive is Vanessa Redgrave. There are other versions out there - a 1988 Made-For-TV version starring Charlton Heston, John Gielgud and funnily enough Vanessa Redgrave again is out there. A 1964 Australian tele-play also exists. It's probably overdue another adaptation - especially considering the world we live in today - but I doubt it would have the power of the original, which would be hard to outdo. It's a fine work in all departments - technically well made, with Robert Bolt proving adept at adapting his own play for the big screen. Bolt won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, and director Zinnemann would see his fine film win Best Picture, while also delivering him a Best Director Academy Award. All richly deserved. Words can hardly do this film justice.