Forty years ago, I first saw A Man for All Seasons, about the martyrdom of St. Thomas More. I saw it again this afternoon, maybe my fifteenth viewing, but only my first as a Catholic.
Why do I love this film so much? Let’s give it the Kristin Lavransdatter treatment, with a Top-10 countdown:
10. As More, Paul Scofield rocks. A British TV report of his death likened his voice to the sound of “a Rolls Royce starting up.” When he shouts “Nevertheless” in the climactic court scene, the Rolls is going about 10,000 RPMs. When I was eighteen (about my age when I first saw the film), I wanted to be “the next great Hamlet.” Being the next Paul Scofield would have been good enough.
9. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, A Man for All Seasons is partly a father-daughter story, and I am a sucker for father-daughter stories. More’s daughter Margaret, his eldest child, became reputedly the best educated woman in England, and the scenes between Susannah York and Paul Scofield in the film are heart-rending. My wife, Katie, walked into the TV room as More’s family was visiting him in prison for the last time and Margaret was begging him to take the oath, and my face was streaked with tears. Margaret so wants her father to take the oath and save himself. He so loves his daughter—but will not take the oath. (“What is an oath but words we say to God? . . . When a man takes an oath he is taking his own self in his hands.”)
8. The supporting cast is spectacular. There are at least a dozen great performances, including Colin Blakely as More’s head servant, Matthew, and a cameo by Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn, but I especially admire John Hurt as Richard Rich and Leo McKern as his mentor, Thomas Cromwell. They are the perfect slimy foils to Scofield’s paragon of integrity.
7. More lives in a world far more hierarchical than our own, and his genius, his sanctity, is never to lose sight of the order of things. More’s last words on the scaffold are, “I die his Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” God always comes first. It’s amazing how many English Protestants of the sixteenth century forgot that. And today? How about us Catholics?
6. More illustrates the power and the eloquence of silence. According to Cromwell, More’s silence about the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was “bellowing up and down Europe.” Qui tacet consentire: Silence gives consent. How often would I be better off keeping silence in my daily life? Silence is powerful. Silence is eloquent.
5. More is a martyr closer to our times than, say, Perpetua or Justin, and therefore one I can better understand. He was a man of the world, embroiled in worldly politics, who came to a moment in his life when he realized that he had to make a final choice between the world and God. He chose God, and the scaffold.
4. The story is set at the cusp of the Protestant “Reformation.” (Ferde calls it the Protestant Rebellion, when he’s being generous.) Whatever you call it, the film and the face-off of Thomas More with Henry VIII demonstrate that the motives for Protestantism were often grounded in completely worldly interests. Henry was horny, OK? And if you want to understand Lutheranism and its eponymous founder, take a look at Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther.
3. There is a touching marriage at the heart of this film, Thomas (Scofield) and Alice (Wendy Hiller). In fact, Alice was More’s second wife and not the mother of any of his children, born by his first wife, who had died. But theirs’ was a marriage, and their final encounter in More’s cell in the Tower brought another wave of tears to my streaked face this afternoon. (More: “It’s a lion I married, a lion.” Bull: “It’s a lion I married.”)
2. This has nothing to do with the movie, but Thomas More wrote one of my favorite prayers. A modernized portion, sometimes called “The Lawyer’s Prayer,” reads: Give me the grace, good Lord, to set the world at naught; to set my mind fast upon Thee and not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths. To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly company but utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of the business thereof.
1. The bad guys get it in the end. Or as Psalm 37 has it, “Do not fret because of the wicked . . . they wither quickly like grass / and fade like the green of the fields.” After the axe comes down on More’s neck, a voice comes up to tell us: “Thomas More’s head was stuck on Traitor’s Gate for a month. Then his daughter Margaret removed it and kept it until her death. Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The archbishop was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason, but the king died of syphillis the night before. Richard Rich became Chancellor of England and died in his bed.” Well, most of the bad guys.