A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Fred Zinneman’s A Man for All Seasons proved to be a resounding success upon its 1966 release. It swept the 39th Academy Awards with eight nominations and six wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.The film’s success was surprising; it made over six times the amount of its limited budget and was widely praised by critics.
Adapted from Robert Bolt’s play of the same name, the movie follows the rise and fall of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) during Henry VIII’s struggle to divorce Catherine of Aragon, marry Anne Boleyn, and become head of the Church of England. Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) is the king’s Lord Chancellor at the beginning of the film, but fails to obtain the annulment Henry (Robert Shaw) so desires. Wolsey is accused of treason and apparently dies from natural causes before his execution. Most of the film shows More’s subsequent rise as Chancellor after Wolsey’s death, and ends with his renunciation of the position, refusing to swear an oath under the king’s Act of Succession, which leads to his trial, and, finally, execution. Throughout the movie, More struggles to reconcile his moral and religious conscience with his duties as the king’s right-hand man. The conclusion is that he can’t, and he chooses to die a martyr’s death by remaining true to his faith. A Man for All Seasons is essentially More’s hagiography.
Despite the high praise of critics and audiences alike, some More scholars disagreed with the film’s representation of the Catholic saint as an enlightened icon of civil rights. One such scholar once wrote that if More were alive, he would not have supported the Civil Rights Movement or anti-war protests, but rather the Holocaust and nuclear warfare. It’s easy to see More as the villain; he was ceaseless in his quest to root out heretics. Before he was made Lord Chancellor, More was charged with finding banned heretical material, writing refutations, and condemning Protestants in much the same way he was later condemned. More wrote a series of attacks against Luther, but it wasn’t until William Tyndale wrote The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528)that Henry VIII began to shift his position away from More’s. Tyndale argued that it was an inversion of the divine order for a king to submit to the power of the Church, a position which appealed to Henry considering the Pope still had not annulled his first marriage. More, on the other hand, despised Tyndale. Since the Protestant not only promoted a break with the Catholic Church but also translated the Bible into English, More declared Tyndale a heretic. When More became Chancellor in 1530, the Protestant belief that the Catholic priesthood was unnecessary to get closer to God was spreading, not only from Luther and Tyndale, but also to the king himself. Henry VIII instituted the Act of Succession (1532), which would legitimate his marriage to Anne Boleyn as well as any children they may have together, and the king, rather the Pope, would become the supreme head of the Church of England. As the movie shows, it is because of this act that More is inevitably executed.
More became mythologized as a symbol against tyrannical rule in his first biography (1556), written by More’s son-in-law, William Roper. Despite Roper being a Protestant, he still was responsible for establishing More as a legendary martyr with an unwavering moral and political conscience. Four hundred years after More’s death, R.W. Chambers wrote another popular biography (1935) that further cemented his martyr status, and More was canonized the same year. Rather than a dastardly politician who ambitiously plotted against Protestants, Chambers’ biography depicts More like the way Roper chose to fashion him in 1556. After all, fascism was steadily rising in 1935, and More became the perfect anti-fascist icon to symbolize the fight against tyrannical rule, which Henry VIII’s reign emblematized for those who drew parallels with present-day fascism. Thirty years later, A Man for All Seasonswas released, and More was once again portrayed as a liberal icon that resonated with the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War protests. On top of that, the assassination of JFK in 1963 made More’s image of a Catholic martyr resonate with American audiences.
The presentation of More as a liberal nonconformist in A Man for All Seasons is not entirely unfounded. Despite what some scholars may alleged about his sexual appetites or misogyny, More cared deeply for the education of his three daughters, and even changed the opinions of a few elite sixteenth-century academics on the matter of female education. More’s comparatively progressive interest in his daughters’ education is represented positively in the film. Two of the lead characters are female — More’s eldest daughter, Margaret (Susannah York), and More’s second wife, Alice (Wendy Hiller) — and it is clear More relies on them for both emotional and political support. In films portraying the medieval and early modern periods, female characters are often benched from having conversations that carry any kind of narrative weight; the women in this film, however, play key roles in advancing More’s egalitarianism. Margaret and Alice are not afraid to ask probing questions and engage in intense political discussion, and one never gets the sense that More is condescending to them. Margaret, as an idealized scholar, even plays an active role in her own marriage and proves her wits against Henry VIII.
More remains a complicated figure. He represents both oppression and resistance, tyranny and egalitarianism, immorality and full-fledged integrity. However, as a man for all seasons, More’s faith remained the one thing unchanged even when confronted with his own demise.
Early Modern Era (c. 1500-1750)