Twenty-five years after Citizen Kane Orson Welles finally appears in a best picture winner. Albeit it’s only for about one scene but it is dynamic and absorbing. He and Paul Scofield lay the groundwork for what turns out to be a surprisingly intriguing story.
A Man for All Seasons takes place between 1529 and 1535 during the reign of King Henry VIII. The film begins when Cardinal Wolsey (Welles), the Lord Chancellor of England, summons Sir Thomas More (Scofield) to Hampton Court for a private, late-night meeting to discuss the King’s desire to divorce and remarry.
You see, at the time the Church of England still recognized the Pope’s authority. But Catherine of Aragon was unable to produce a male heir for Henry VIII, plus she was getting past her childbearing years. Henry wanted to divorce her and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused permission so Henry wanted to break away from the Vatican and make divorce legal.
Wolsey was anxious that without a male heir England will find itself in another period of dynastic wars like the Wars of the Roses about 100 years earlier. Wolsey’s solution is to apply “pressure” on the Vatican (aka extortion) regarding Church property and revenue in England to force the issue. More is the only member of the Privy Council to oppose Wolsey which is not going over well with the Cardinal. More, as a devout Catholic, informs him very resolutely that he can never and will never go along with his suggestion.
Thus sets in motion the story of a man at odds with those in power because his convictions are unshakable. No matter what pressures may be applied, Sir Thomas More will not recant.
The script is sharply written although about midway through the second act it does drag a little. But it somehow takes the story of King Henry VIII trying to get the Chancellor of England to endorse his divorce so he could marry his mistress and makes it compelling cinema.
Robert Bolt adapted his own Tony Award-winning play* into an Oscar-winning script. For a stretch of five years he was the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood writing Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons. All three were up for best picture (two won) and if it hadn’t been for To Kill a Mockingbird he’d have three screenwriting Oscars on his mantle instead of two.
A Man for All Seasons is visually grand with lavish period costumes, majestic locations and ornate settings. It makes the most of its Technicolor presentation utilizing the symbolic imagery of gargoyle statues, reflections on water and serene vistas of nature to convey character, setting and story. It won the Oscar for “best cinematography, color” but this would be the last year the Academy would have a separate category for black and white films.
As the story unfolds Sir Thomas More finds himself under pressure from friends and foes alike. It costs him his home, his position, his standing in society and his freedom. In the end it even costs him his head.
It dawned on me partway through how A Man for All Seasons bears some similarities to another best picture winner three decades earlier, The Life of Emile Zola (1937).
Emile Zola refuses to back down, even when threatened with imprisonment for accusing the French army of covering up of a monstrous injustice against one of their own soldiers.
Like Zola, Sir Thomas More is a man of principles who will not compromise. He is pressed to sign an oath swearing allegiance to King Henry as Supreme Governor of the Church of England (his way out of his pesky Pope approval problem). When More refuses to sign he is imprisoned in the Tower of London. His friend, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport) tries to persuade him to sign the oath to win his release.
Duke of Norfolk: Why can’t you do as I did, and come with us…for fellowship?
Sir Thomas More: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me…for fellowship?
I also couldn’t help but think about another great performance Paul Scofield would give three decades later as Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth in The Crucible (1996).
In the film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials Danforth is the chief judge of the court taking the opportunity to advance his power and influence, eagerly convicting anyone brought before him. In one particularly powerful scene Danforth presses John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) to sign a confession of witchcraft, a confession which would be false.
John Proctor: My name I cannot sign.
Danforth: Why? Do you mean to deny this confession when you are free?
John Proctor: I mean to deny nothing.
Danforth: Then explain to me why you will not…
John Proctor: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!
John Proctor, like Sir Thomas More, paid with his life to maintain his convictions. And The Crucible, like A Man for All Seasons, will challenge your character, your principles and your resolve.
The title reflects Bolt’s portrayal of More as a man of conscience who remains true to his principles and to his God under all circumstances and at all times. Bolt took the title from something written in 1520 by Robert Whittington, one of More’s contemporaries.
“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”
Coming into the Oscars A Man for All Seasons and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were the top two contenders. They had the most nominations (8 and 13 respectively) and they were the only two best picture nominees whose directors were also nominated. They ended up with the most wins as well (6 and 5).
Robert Shaw received the one and only Oscar nomination of his 30+ year career for his portrayal of as King Henry VIII. From the moment he hops off that fancy boat, landing ankle deep in the mud with a boisterous laugh, he brings the same kind of charisma and energy he would bring to the screen 9 years later at Captain Quint in Jaws.
Paul Scofield was more fortunate on Oscar night becoming just the 6th performer to win an Academy Award and a Tony for the same role, having played More on Broadway. But he almost didn’t get the chance to accept his Oscar. The Academy Awards broadcast was nearly canceled due to an AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) strike. But just three hours before the ceremony the dispute was settled and as they say, on with the show.
*1962 Tony for Best Play