the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Man For All Seasons

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

We live in a world of compromise. Right or wrong, we do not flinch at cutting corners or bending our integrity should the need arise. We justify our actions, claiming the greater good, while all the while our honor is torn to shreds at our own behest.

It is a world that Sir Thomas More, a highly respected English statesman who would rather sacrifice his life than betray his conscience or his God, would have found both utterly foreign and profoundly frightening. I think he may be right.

A Man For All Seasons is one of those great old classics that never dulls with age. In fact, it is among a select few films that actually grows more impressive the further from its inception it moves. Perhaps that is because, unlike most films whose message grows stale with age, A Man For All Seasons represents the sort of moral reminder we could do with a lot more of these days.

Henry VIII is king of England. Forget your high school textbook images of a rotund king lobbing the heads off his wives. This is before all that. Henry is young and dynamic, a maelstrom of passion and emotion. His Lord Chancellor is Thomas More, a friend and confidant. Things go awry for the two when Henry decides to end his relationship with his wife, Catherine and replace her with Anne Boleyn. Forbidden a divorce by Rome, Henry splits with the Vatican and declares himself the “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” More, a pious Catholic, cannot in good conscience serve him any longer and quietly resigns.

But More’s silence is widely perceived as disapproval of the king’s actions, though he has never spoken publicly or privately on the matter. The king and his men come after More, igniting a compelling game of cat and mouse in which the sheer force of the monarchy is brought to bear on More’s wily and nearly impregnable legal strategy: if he maintains his silence he cannot be accused of opposing the king.

In the end, More must give up his freedom and eventually even his life, martyred for his convictions. Some have viewed A Man For All Seasons and wondered why More didn’t simply tell the king and his men what they wanted to hear in order to save his life. Surely the price was too high for his silence? And yet the answer is in the film, in a line that More gives his daughter, who has similar doubts:

"When a man takes an oath," he explains, holding his hands before him, "he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loath to think your father one of them."

A Man For All Seasons won six richly deserved Oscars, including Best Picture (1966), Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Actor (Paul Scofield), and Best Screenplay (Robert Bolt).

It boasts a cast that is second to none, without a false note to be found among them: Paul Scofield, who originated the role theatrically and portrays More with an astonishing restraint and disciplined wisdom and humor; Robert Shaw as the tempestuous and unbalanced Henry VIII; Orson Welles as the conniving Cardinal Wolsey; Leo McKern as the diabolical Thomas Cromwell; John Hurt as the sycophant Master Rich; Wendy Hiller and Susannah York as More’s wife and daughter; and an uncredited cameo by then up and comer Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn.

Yes, A Man For All Seasons is a talky, but oh such words! Robert Bolt’s screenplay, fashioned after his own play, is essentially a character study, one prolonged conflict of wills. That ideological clashes are difficult to translate visually should be obvious, and yet this cast and crew have crafted one of the riches thematic films ever made, full of conviction, conscience and inspiration.

After the credits have rolled, the film continues to ask unshakable questions: Who are you really? What defines you? After the transitory elements of your life are removed, what remains? What part of you is utterly not for sale at any price no matter what the pressure? Or, given the right circumstances and incentives, are you infinitely malleable? At this distillation you will find your true self. The hundreds of years old moral debate encapsulated in this film is every bit as fresh and relevant today.

To read the full review, click here.


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