Because of “A Man for All Seasons”

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.

"Vaya con Dios, Leonard; Rest in Peace."

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks for reminding the world of my favorite movie! R.W. Chambers wrote a wonderful biography of Thomas More–I think you'd love it! Sadly, most of Paul Scofield's recorded work is out of print (if one can use that term with regard to audio, video and film). BBC Arena did a wonderful bio of him which can be viewed in 10-minute chunks on youtube. Crazed completist that I am, I've compiled a list of his recorded works at with information on their availability. Some wonderful recordings are available free on-line.

  • Behind your appreciation for this fine film is your still greater appreciation for Thomas More. This makes me wonder if you have yet discovered the writings of his dear friend, Erasmus? If not, a good starting point is Roland Bainton's biography, "Erasmus of Christendom." It's a wonderful book that helps bring to life the period in which More and Erasmus lived.Jim ForestJim & Nancy site:

  • Mack

    Thanks! I saw the play only once, beautifully done at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. And let's not forget the quite-good Charlton Heston film, closer to the play, with The Common Man serving at Robert Bolt's Shakespearean Chorus, and Vanessa Redgrave again, this time as Alice More. Heston and Redgrave are worlds apart in politics and, possibly, faith, but their professionalism shines. The actor playing Henry is the one weak point.I would love to know why Heston, a devout Anglican, always loved A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.

  • This is the blog I wanted to write in the first place. (Alas, I'm a cradle Catholic, so I don't get the merit of coming to Catholicism from outside.)

  • hal

    Thomas Moore is turning, restless in his grave, because now there is no truth in the Catholic Church because anyone who calls Abortion what is exactly is, namely cold blooded murder, is blacklisted by the authorites and Powers of the Catholic Church. We kill chickens, that is not what we do to humans – there is no more premeditated murder than the taking of the totally innocent yet to be pushed out of the womb people! Yet none dare call it "Murder"

  • Thanks for this I love More, he has a lot to say to us to-day – "I die his Majesty's good servant, but God's first." that sums up "love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength and mind and love your neighbour as yourself". – The total fullfillment of the Law.

  • What a great find, your blog! I was pointed your way by someone who read your Thomas More post here. Your ten points are home-runs.I've gone through and read all of your posts and even watched the Ollabelle videos (incredible musicians!). I don't know what to say except God bless you, you're doing a real service here, your love for your new Faith is elegantly evident.

  • Anonymous

    I tell people that God use movies to begain my journey toward Him. First one was Becket, then A Man for all seasons and the last one was Brother Son Sister Moon I became a Catholic in 1975 I beleive that these three movies help me understan how live in the world but to put God first. I was teanager when I saw the first two.

  • crazylikeknoxes

    Qui tacet consentire. For his defense, More was relying on the legal presumption "qui tacet consentire." I.e. although he refused to take the oath, his silence, as a purely legal matter and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, had to be construed as consent. In reality, however, his silence "bellowing up and down Europe" was understood for what it really was: More's principled opposition to the oath as a matter of conscience.

  • crazylikeknoxes

    The matter of More's silence is related to what I consider one of the film's enigmas. In that rightly celebrated scene where More confronts Rich, he asserts "I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake." This scene is often quoted in support of the rule of law.To me, however, it is very ironic that More's faith in the law fails to save him. Repeatedly he assures his family that as long as he remains silent he will be safe: "qui tacet consentire." That is the law and More relied upon it. But to what end? So, are we supposed to take "I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake" at face value, or do latter events require us to reconsider More's reliance on legal process?I'm just askin'?

  • Webster Bull

    Regarding previous comment, More says he'd "give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake" not to Richard Rich but to his son-in-law-to-be, Will Roper. He does so in part to quiet Roper so the young man won't say anything that could harm him or More's daughter. I think we have to give More credit for being like many saints, that is, a complex and imperfect human being, who stood astride the law and the church as long as he could. But when he had no wiggle room left, he chose the church.

  • Frank

    You may find this of interest…