Sometimes old British movies can be mistakenly (or over-enthusiastically) labeled “masterpieces” simply because of their pedigree. Fred Zinnenman’s 1966 biography film A Man for All Seasons is an appropriately opulent account of the life of Sir Thomas More (played heartily by Paul Scofield), a Lord Chancellor who dared to not publicly endorse the divorce that Henry VIII (a devilish Robert Shaw) desired of his wife, because of his strong spiritual convictions and his good standing as a leading moral authority throughout the country. More was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, and is the patron saint of lawyers and statesmen.
Zinnenman’s lavish re-telling of this historical footnote is the kind of film that used to steamroll over the competition at the Oscars: it won for it’s leading man, Scofield (who beat out Richard Burton’s tour de force in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), for Best Picture, Zinnenman (as Best Director), and for Robert Bolt’s adaptation of his own play. Two other wins in technical categories; as well as nominations for supporting actors Shaw and Wendy Hiller (as More’s wife) were among the film’s awards booty, and signaled that the Brits had a strong hold on the historical biography genre; a myth that lasts even to this day.
Exploring morality in politics in the face of life-threatening danger, A Man for All Seasons does have some very timely elements that compliment the dated ones. More was a lawyer, a philosopher, a scholar, and an author as well as devoutly Catholic, which prevented him from giving Henry the “ok” to divorce his deceased brother’s wife, whom he was given special permission by the Pope of the time to marry in the first place. Once his wife failed to produce an heir, the King had no use for her. He sought to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn (a very young, sort of spastic Vanessa Redgrave). Henry needed all of his royal court to sanction this new whim (so he would not appear to his subjects to be sinning), so when More (one of his closest court advisors) denied him this, the King took it personally.
More’s opinion on matters such as these was of great interest to the British people, for he bridged a gap between the otherworldly realms of the court and the peasantry as an honest, hard-working private citizen. He believed that there was a way for him to be both a public servant, and a servant of God without being a puppet politician or a priest. At the time, this notion was completely revolutionary.
As most revolutionary men who stand up for principles are very aware of, More knew that having such an unpopular opinion would be met with personal danger. He possessed a religious conviction so strong that he would never break it, not even to save his own life (he was given numerous chances to change his mind, but refused). More was duly sent to the Tower of London to live out whatever few remaining days he had left, and he declared that his immortal soul was more important than lying to protect his King’s royal line. More made perfectly clear that Henry was still someone that he deeply loved and respected, despite his jailing. A true religious martyr, not even More’s proud, dedicated family (nicely played by Hiller and Susannah York) could force him to change his mind about dying for what he believed in.
One of the most original directors of sweeping, exotically-set epics during Hollywood’s earliest years (he was responsible for From Here to Eternity, Julia, and High Noon as well), Zinnenman displays a keen eye for international intrigue, and an innovative perspective for framing scenes. During the final act (set in the Tower), the film’s central characters gather in the prison as More’s execution nears. Shot in inky shadows, only the actors’ expressive faces are illuminated, creating a ghostly, pious effect that compliments the film’s tone.
The detail to historical accuracy throughout the film is painstaking; even if its execution looks a bit dated (some sets look cheap and garish). The old-fashioned (though still enjoyable on a base level) history lesson of a film provides a prime example of why not every single past epic should be considered a “classic”. All of the elements of the “classic epic” are here: smart performances, elaborate sets, gorgeous costumes, and surprisingly modern camera work; still there is something very dated about the way it is presented (even the sparse featurette extra on More’s life seems a bit too stodgy for celebrating such a radical). At the end of the day, A Man for All Seasons is just another overblown, stuffy history lesson without much to offer in the way of cinematic innovation. It’s beautifully safe and painfully accurate.