As one of the only movies to make a Catholic English Martyr its main focus, A Man for All Seasons has always held a special place in my Catholic Anglophile heart. But aside from that, I also believe the film has a philosophical quality and spiritual poignancy that transcends subject matter and makes it one of the greatest cinematic achievements. If art is meant to teach us more about our true selves, as opposed to simply serving as an opiate of glitz and glitter eye-candy, this classic is true to its title and main character by being relatable to all people and applicable to all seasons.
Paul Scofield stars as Sir Thomas More, an honorable man caught in the grip of religious and political upheaval in Tudor England. A lawyer, politician, and personal friend of King Henry VIII, his future advancement seems likely and he enjoys his contented private life with his wife and daughter at his country estate in Chelsea. However, dark clouds loom on the horizon when the king takes it upon himself to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, on a “point of conscience.”
Pressured to support the move by the corrupt Cardinal Wolsey, the devoutly Catholic More maintains that annulments are a matter for the Holy See to determine. But when More is appointed to the position of Chancellor of England, his refusal to speak for or against the proceedings sparks the anger of the irascible King Henry. When the determined royal visits More at Chelsea, Henry once again tries to force him to make a statement about the divorce which results in a bitter showdown between the two men.
The overlay of political and religious strife across Christendom drives a further wedge between the king and his “good servant.” When the pope definitively refuses to grant an annulment, Henry breaks ties with Rome and declares himself to be Head of the Church of England. More, in turn, resigns his commission as Lord Chancellor, and he and his family struggle to adjust to a life of more limited means, finding their servants employment in other households, selling their possessions, and being forced to cut reeds for fuel. He hopes his silence on the issue will enable him to weather the storm in seclusion until it passes over.
But when the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging the king as Head of the Church is made mandatory, More is once again sought by agents of the king. Again, he maintains his conscientious objection and refuses to sign it. As a result, he is thrown into the Tower of London. At the behest of the unscrupulous Thomas Cromwell, the new Chancellor, he is repeatedly interrogated, using all forms of pressure to make him budge. But he will not sign the oath.
Putting his legal knowledge and pristine wit to the test, More tries his best to avert his fate while still keeping faith with his deepest held beliefs, refusing to reveal his true opinions to anyone and maintaining his right to remain silent. When the peers of the realm fail to shake his resolve, his own family is recruited to sway him, and a profoundly emotional encounter takes place in prison. In spite of this, More holds fast to his convictions, which sets him on the bitter path of mock trial and martyrdom.
In true British fashion, the style of this film is dry yet potent, full of both sophisticated witticisms and emotional depth. The camera techniques and visuals also aim for an almost stark depiction of the past which seemingly manages to transcend the centuries. Unlike many big-budget period pieces, the sets are few and basic. The story is the main attraction as opposed to the setting. The quick cuts from one scene to another and general lack of background music add to this poignant sense of realism. It is not cluttered with the hyperbole and sensationalism of an epic, but rather approached in the straightforward manner of a docudrama mixed with the moral underpinnings of a Shakespearian tragedy.
This does not mean there are not some splendors for the eye. Thank heavens, this movie was filmed on location in England, which makes it feel all the more authentic and personally sparks my imagination. It all seems to be as it should be – the great river used as a highway, the foggy landscapes dotted by the thundering king’s horsemen, the evocative Tudor buildings, the hallowed interiors of Westminster Hall. There are the noteworthy elements of nature included, such as the simple yet haunting inclusion in the introductory credits of a loon crying out at twilight by the Thames, a lone duck swimming in the reeds, and the flight of a flock of birds, as if frightened by some impending disaster. In contrast to this, the sinister gargoyles that serve as a constant motif are a deeply evocative display of both power and peril, but also the deadness of false flattery and the emptiness of all earthly glory.
Another cinematic symbol involves bells being rung in the most prestigious churches and cathedrals in the kingdom to celebrate the king’s wedding to Anne Boleyn, highlighting that amidst all noise, Thomas More’s silence and refusal to attend speaks the loudest of all. Also, it is interesting to note that when showing the churches in the aftermath of Henry’s break from Rome, the camera first shows their reflection in the river, not unlike the reflection shown of Henry’s boats on the river when coming to visit Thomas More. In both cases, there is something untrue, a false image projected by a Church stripped of its proper authority and a king stripped of his conscience.
While the music overall is sparse, the introductory theme for A Man for All Seasons is deeply impactful, full of the pageantry of the age but also containing undercurrents of the turmoil in the plot. Interestingly, another theme had been originally proposed for the film, inspired by music composed by Henry VIII himself, but it felt too light and airy for the heavy nature of the storyline. So a new theme was composed, one that carried the gravitas of the plot, one which might be best symbolized by the figure of death and how it is met by the human soul. As Thomas More says during his trial, “Death: it comes for us all, my lord, even for kings.”
Another moment when this theme is brought to the fore is when Cardinal Wolsey lies dying, while the monks chant the 51st Psalm which More himself will recite just before laying his head on the executioner’s block. The archway in the background of Wolseys’ death scene is inscribed with the Latin words: “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”, meaning “Thus Passes the Glory of the World.” This correlates with another Latin phrase: “Memento Mori”, which means “Remember Death”, and ironically has also been translated by some to mean “Remember More”.
There are other musical highlights to be mentioned, as well. I have always been moved by the scene in which Sir Thomas is being led to the interrogation at Richmond Palace, and he passes a room full of partygoers, laughing and dancing to jubilant airs. Their trivial display in the face of such depth of spirit is a powerful contrast. Ironically, the drunken reveler who staggers to the door to watch as More passes by is the same man who tried bribe him in the Court of Requests at the beginning of the film, proving that integrity is rarely rewarded in this world. Another line from the film highlights this: “If virtue were profitable, then all men would be virtuous.”
This is further highlighted by the scene which shows Thomas More receiving the chain of office as Chancellor of England, which then melts into the scene of Henry’s arrival at the More estate, heralded by bombastic music and colorful pomp and circumstance befitting a royal visit. When the boats land, Henry proceeds to jump out of the boat and land in the mud, which splatters all over his clothes. At first, his sycophantic courtiers are afraid of how their volatile sovereign might react, but when he starts to laugh wildly, they join in, and also dive into the mud. The symbolism here couldn’t be clearer.
And yet we know for a fact that in spite of how many blind followers the king has, it is Thomas whose approval he so desperately craves because he knows that he is honest. That is why, at his wedding to Anne Boleyn, Henry mistakes another guest for Thomas in his desperation to have him present, even though the real man will not attend the royal charade. Although Henry tries his best to relish the moment of his triumph, drunkenly singing to his new bride a song based on the epic Beowulf, portraying himself as the monster Grendel going after his prey, he is obviously plagued by a guilty conscience, and the realization that he is indeed becoming the beast.
The cast is stellar, and Paul Scofield makes a perfect Thomas More. His expressions are wonderfully readable, such as when Henry VIII is ranting irrationally in More’s garden. The look perfectly encapsulates the moment as More realizes the king is not only headstrong but more than a little maniacal and will breach no opposition. His voice has a terrific range, carrying within it an effortless intensity, from his usual quiet demeanor to the bellowing finale in Westminster Hall, when More is faced with the fact that the law, which he has championed all his life, has been subverted, and will now drag him under. Scofield also brings a depth of humanity to More, who loves his family, his home, and all the good things of life and who admits that beneath his witty phrases and lawyer’s banter he is afraid of what his fate will be.
I think Scofield’s greatest triumph is enabling us to truly care about More and fear that he can be hurt, and dread that he can be killed. He’s not a stick-figure saint; he’s someone whom we might know, or someone we might be ourselves. He’s also marvelously English in the best sense of the word, almost the epitome of the best characteristics of people and the place. No matter how many times I watch the film, I find myself involuntarily cringing as the net closes around him. The actor himself noted that he was able to relate to the humanity of More, and realized that bringing out the fullness of his humanity was key in making the film a success.
Scofield himself was baptized into the faith of his Catholic mother, although he always felt somewhat divided in spiritual matters since his father was Anglican. He was known for being “a true country gentleman” who put his marriage, family, and home life first and never allowed the fame of his career to go to his head. A classically trained Shakespearian actor and resident of a small village in Sussex, he did not even go to collect his own Academy Award for Best Actor in person. He also rejected the offer of a knighthood three times, believing in the maxim “Never the actor before the part he plays.” After his death, many of Scofield’s fellow villagers knew next to nothing about his fame in the acting world, simply regarding him as one of their own, the nice old man who always supported local theater productions. Perhaps it is this abiding combination of humility, intellectual honesty, and recognition of the important things of life that truly made him perfectly destined to bring the character of Thomas More to life onscreen.
Wendy Hiller, another esteemed British thespian, makes a delightfully grouchy Mrs. More, and one of the most emotional scenes is her final parting from her husband in his prison cell, when he tries to improve her mood by complimenting her dress and the custard she brought him. She explodes in anger and says she fears she will hate him if he should let himself be killed. This visibly breaks his stoic resolve, and he repeats in a broken voice, “No, you mustn’t, Alice…you mustn’t…” She eventually breaks down herself and embraces him, saying that, while she still doesn’t understand why her husband must go through with the ultimate sacrifice, she’d gladly tell the king what she thinks of him. More affectionately repeats, “It’s a lion I married, a lion, a lion!”
The film also does an excellent job portraying the relationship between Thomas and his favorite daughter, Meg, played by Susannah York. There is an obvious chemistry and genuine love between the two of them that can be conveyed with the simplest look or gesture. He has imbued her with his own love of learning, and the two of them share a heart and a mind. Seeing that heart and soul cruelly severed by her father’s imprisonment, and her desperation to get him to come out by using all the twists of her intellect that he taught her, is profoundly painful. One historical scene I wish the film showed was that of Margaret rushing to her father in the aftermath of the trial, flinging her arms around his neck and causing his emotional reserve to finally falter. “Meg, for the love of God, do not un-man me,” he was said to have pleaded, although the tears he could no longer contain were already in his eyes.
Another relationship I find deeply fascinating is the one between More and the sometimes brusque, sometimes comic Duke of Norfolk, played by Nigel Davenport. It is evident that More deeply values their friendship, but he also says that as deep as his affection towards Norfolk runs, God is the only one who is love through and through, and He must come first. Then he tries on purpose to get Norfolk to break their friendship so he will not be implicated with More. To do this, Thomas engages the Duke in a verbal fight, in which he declares that “the nobility of England would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount”, and denounces them for allowing their obsession with pedigree to blind them to the true worth of men. As their argument escalates, Norfolk physically strikes at More, leaving him sprawled on the ground with a look of intense emotional pain on his face.
To my never-ending angst, some have insisted that A Man for All Seasons is a “boring”, “unimaginative”, “conservative” film. If by boring they mean no Indiana Jones-style action sequences, well, they would happily be correct. It is not meant to be light entertainment, but neither is it meant to be strictly academic. As Sir Thomas tells his sobbing daughter Meg, after all the arguments are finished, love is what remains. This is the heart of the production, and the faith, and exploration of the spirit of man and his essence, his very self shot through and through, the Divine Spark and the place where God resides.
An interesting fact is that Robert Bolt, the screenplay writer of A Man for All Seasons, was an agnostic, yet always felt an abiding connection with Thomas More for his principled stand against tyranny. The result was that Bolt did an exceptional job portraying religious conviction without being arrogant or preachy about it. As a side effect, the theme of individual conscience was stressed to make the film more palatable to non-Catholic viewers who had no sympathy for issues of Ecclesiastical authority and a united Christendom. This made it easier to swallow for broader audiences, but also ran the risk of simplifying the real Thomas More, who actually stridently fought against what he deemed to be heresy within the realm. This is hinted at in his refusal to allow his daughter Meg to marry Will Roper while he maintains beliefs that challenge Church authority.
In large part due to the revisionist historical fiction drama Wolf Hall, which portrays Cromwell as a “savvy player” and More as a warped semi-psychopathic prig, all sorts of allegations have arisen with regards to More’s treatment of those condemned under heresy laws during his tenure as Chancellor. There is no doubt that he stridently wrote against heresy in pamphlets, often using harsh language and expletives to get his point across. It is also clear that at least some people (roughly six or eight) were judged by him according to the laws of the day for propagating heresy, either by means of flogging or capital punishment. But there is absolutely no indication he took any part in torture sessions nor derived some perverse pleasure over the sentences passed.
The fact is he was a man of his age, and some of the things he said and did may seem rather smallminded and even a bit hypocritical according to a modern perspective. But it should be noted that he also made good impressions on non-Catholics. Far from turning in Will Roper over their theological disagreements, More managed to win him over through his prayers, charm, and good humor. Also, a Lutheran visitor to England from Germany reported having a wonderful experience as a guest at the home of Thomas More. Even though they differed in matters of religious belief, he confirmed that More treated him with the greatest courtesy and goodwill.
As with all historical figures, historical context is vital to understanding them and appreciating them in their fullness. While molded by the times in which he lived, he was also ahead of those times in many ways. As a Catholic Humanist and a Renaissance man, he was determined to make the world a better place through his role in politics, and was progressive in his notions on women’s education, reform of clergy abuse scandals, and the role of the senate to check the powers of the king. In all these, he maintained his devotion to his Catholic faith even at the cost of his life. And this was a man who deeply loved life in all its forms and seasons.
The finale of the film in Westminster Hall is unfailingly inspiring, especially in light of Pope Benedict XVI’s speech given in that very same hall during his official visit to the UK, in which he praised More’s courage in the face of death. It always strikes the inner core of my being, and sets my jaw on edge with the sheer level of passion. Before entering the hall, More makes a brief yet movingly sincere prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, my Sweet Savior, clear my wit; Holy Mary, Blessed Mother of God, comfort my wife and daughter.” This moment, almost more than any others, reveals the depth of a very personal faith that has nothing to do with a grandstand. It pours out of the heart.
It is the endgame, and one which might best be called bittersweet and victorious in defeat as the court finds him guilty of high treason through the false testimony of Richard Rich, the superficial young man who More once tried to help but who has now become the lackey of Thomas Cromwell. Reminiscent of Peter’s betrayal of Christ, Rich is asked three times if he would like to add, detract, or modify his perjury, and all three times he answers, “No, my lord.”
In an iconic moment, More takes a look at the chain around Rich’s neck, and sees the emblem of the red dragon. Inquiring as to its significance, he is told that Rich has been made the High Commissioner of Wales. More responds, “Our Lord said it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world and lose his soul…but for Wales?”
More’s final statements in the Hall sum up the strikingly sound arguments behind his convictions. He says Parliament has no power to meddle in the affairs of the Church or declare Henry head of the Church, for the power had never been given them, and that by assuming it as their own they are going against both the Magna Charta and the king’s own coronation oath to defend the faith. Only the Pope has the power to judge on matters of ecclesiastical rulings, he goes on, and only he can claim the title head of the Church, because it was given him by Christ Himself, who gave St. Peter the keys to the kingdom. But More also makes clear that it is not simply the oath that has brought him to this point, but rather that he would not bend to the king’s new marriage nor give it his blessing.
His execution follows swiftly afterwards, once again accompanied by the camera flashing to signs of living nature all around him, of bees and flowers and the song of the birds, seeming to bespeak some deeper resurrection born through his death as his final words are spoken: “I die his Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” After this we are taken back to a shot of the gargoyles and the wonderfully unperturbed British narrator telling us of the fate of More’s tormenters, who chose the flesh and all worldly comforts and powers over the spirit, but who would meet sorry fates as well, many through execution for “treason” against the king, and that Richard Rich would be made Chancellor of England…only to die in his bed, a testimony both to the paradox of all worldly fates and to Sister Death, the Great Leveler, who lays all hearts bare.
As a Catholic, this movie is a testament to the heartfelt faith of my fathers who held fast to their belief in Christ’s apostolic and sacramental legacy “in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword”, and I would highly recommend it as one of the greatest religious/spiritual films of all time. It also demonstrates the very best and very worst sides of Englishness and Britishness and brings me back to my roots of how I came to love that nation and that people so strongly in all their complexity. Besides being focused on a saint, A Man for All Seasons stands apart as a classically-crafted, skillfully executed, emotionally engrossing political and historical drama about a man who was willing to sacrifice everything to stay true to his truest self. Its power and poignancy will never wane, but only grow with each passing season.