A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann)

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Playwright Robert Bolt found the golden heart of real tragedy in the form of Sir Thomas More for his play A Man for All Seasons, about his refusal to take the infamous Succession Oath, Henry VIII’s strike against the papacy for his own benefit — and the imprisonment, execution, and (here implied) sainthood that resulted. Bolt was himself an agnostic, so as much as religious thematics and convictions set the story into motion, the real concern is principle, ideological dedication, commitment to oneself — a Joan of Arc story, if you will, about patience, forgiveness, “acts of love” in the face of insurmountable persecution over matters that mean little. As the title promises, it’s the drama of a man — one of Britan’s true figures of the humanist Renaissance, and one of the nation’s greatest martyrs.

American director Fred Zinnemann, known for flashy action and a few prestige pictures, most of them overshadowed today by his (unfortunately) extremely influential western High Noon, seems a strange choice to mount this highly theatrical concoction, which doesn’t seem like a great choice for a cinematic translation to begin with — and never truly justifies itself. But what Zinnemann does bring is a sense of place and time that he accomplishes with greater economy and subtlety than almost any other director ever has when dealing with a setting as exotic as 16th century England. His film is a model of taste, carefully rationing its use of locations and never giving in to the temptation to give them a precedence over the story itself. That doesn’t mean he offers nothing to see — his beautiful magic hour shots of rural Britain in the outdoors, his claustrophobic containment that recalls Olivier’s Hamlet, and his concentration on faces and actions all suggest something about his own thematic attachment to More’s saga: that what matters to him is not its mannered historical distance, our opportunity to intellectually deconstruct it from afar, but the factors of its fascination that remain universal, true and familiar to us.

Though he has a lot of help from Bolt and his actors, in this sense he accomplishes something special. But a movie like this lives or dies by its performances, and luckily Zinnemann is given one of the finest casts of any ’60s film here. Disregard the presence of Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey; he looks terrible, doesn’t do much, and is gone quickly. Leo McKern’s chilly and vaguely comical Oliver Cromwell, on the other hand, is a melodramatic delight, John Hurt gets across a sickening naivete as Baron Rich, whose nefarious thirst for advancement dooms More’s life, and Wendy Hiller’s Alice More is haunting and sad, the touch of frail disappointment. Paul Scofield won well-deserved accolades for his even-handed and immensely likable, stern, kindly reading of More himself — we gravitate to him as naturally as his fellow citizens as they seek his compassion and sing his praises — but it’s Robert Shaw, as a lusty, rambunctious King Henry VIII, who steals the film from everyone. He’s sinister, full of life and sensuality, and hilarious, and though he is technically our antagonist here, his every moment on camera is such a treasure we wish for heaps more of him.

Shaw’s scenes are among the few that don’t rely exclusively on dialogue to carry the action forward — though the King has a lengthy tête-à-tête with More early in the picture, it’s his shouting and volatility, and the reactions of others, that measure his fearsome influence. The rest of the film hits an inevitable wall because it just isn’t particularly cinematic, and as in so many filmed plays, the scenes are so distinct and disparate that you can feel the theatrical structure, you can sense the curtain coming up and down and scenery being moved in and out. Zinnemann does his best to weave in and out enough to justify the transition, but we end up with what largely looks like a telefilm — hardly offensively, mind you, but unmistakably. Absorbed as we may be in the well-told tale, in even the riveting courtroom sequences we are made to feel distant and separate, as students being lectured.

Still, the film is gorgeously photographed by Ted Moore (the man responsible for virtually creating the “look” of the James Bond films), and nothing can erase the immense relatability of More’s plight, which rings true even as he breaks the hearts of his wife and family and submits to a death he is well aware he doesn’t deserve, and one he could easily prevent. The politics of the monarchy are abstract to us (unless we’re historians) and really don’t bear much translation to modern life, but they don’t need to because the film translates all of its conflicts into a common human language of emotion, fear, and righteousness. We keep coming back to “love,” which More states as his motivation early on. That love manifests itself passionately, in More’s final goodbye to his wife, his gloriously delivered speech after he’s sentenced to death, and his beautifully rendered forgiveness of his executioner. What’s more, in watching this unexpected Best Picture winner in sequence with its neighbors, it’s hard not to be stricken by the way that Zinnemann’s cinematic language has remained relevant in a sense that many of his peers’ has not. Along with Lawrence of Arabia, this is the first Oscar juggernaut that feels as if it wouldn’t be much different if made today — for better and worse, and in this case I think for better. I liked The King’s Speech and all, but it disappeared from my head much, much more quickly than this did — the sly, sad face of Scofield gazing over a landscape of affirmation and disappointment is not an easy image to shake.

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