Monday, June 22, 2009

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

In the latter part of the twentieth century, as films slowly became more nihilistic, it never ceases to amaze me that in 1966 such a spectacular masterpiece like A Man for All Seasons was shown around the world to great acclaim. Based upon the play by Robert Bolt, the drama which tells of the martyrdom of St. Thomas More was a box office success and won six Oscars. It brought before our eyes the witness of a man of principle who loses everything in order to be faithful to his Savior. In an age when courts of law would put human convenience before the law of God, the image of St. Thomas, who loved his life, his family, his books and his home, having to part with all that he loved for the love of God, has been a powerful grace for many. It certainly has been for me. Film critic Steven Greydanus gives the following synopsis:

Quick-minded, urbane, meticulous, cheerful, admirable, and humorous, Thomas More rises to the rank of Lord Chancellor of England before falling out with King Henry VIII over the King’s plan to end his marriage to Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. When the English bishops break with Rome and Henry is declared "Supreme Head of the Church in England," More, a pious Catholic, can no longer in conscience serve as chancellor, and gives up his high office, income, and great household. To preserve his freedom and protect his family, he also gives up his political and public life, trying to keep a low profile.

But Sir Thomas is too well known to drop out of the public mind, and his silence is widely construed as disapproval, becoming a source of private anxiety and public embarrassment to Henry. What ensues is a riveting cat-and-mouse game, a fox hunt with More as the wily and elusive fox using every trick in the book to elude the king’s hounds baying for his blood. Literally in the book; More is a brilliant lawyer, and his defense is a legal one: if he maintains his silence he cannot be accused of opposing the king.

But presently that is no longer enough, and More must give up his freedom and property in order to save his neck. And when even that is not enough, to preserve his integrity More lays down his neck. All this, because there is something he will not do: He will not swear under oath that he accepts the King’s title and new marriage.

"When a man takes an oath," Sir Thomas explains to his daughter Margaret in a crucial scene, "he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water." He cups his hands. "And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loath to think your father one of them."
That a man like St. Thomas, who rose to the pinnacle of government, could lose his life for speaking truth to power, is a reality we should all keep in mind. He knew that it is better to have interior peace than earthly success, that it is better to lose the esteem of men in order to win heaven.

The 1988 version starring Charleton Heston is also excellent although not yet available on DVD. Share

6 comments:

Stephanie A. Mann said...

What a great movie and marvelous post! I just finished reading Gerard Wegemer's book "Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage" while preparing for a radio interview this morning. Professor Wegemer emphasizes how More consistently tried to steer Henry VIII to what he should do, not what he could do.
The other martyr honored today is Bishop John Fisher, who even more directly opposed Henry--comparing himself to John the Baptist defending marriage (which made Henry VIII comparable to Herod!) Both men, as you note, valued Heaven and integrity far above earthly success. Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, Pray for Us!

elena maria vidal said...

Amen! How we need those great saints today!

Megan said...

I was just watching this film yesterday in honor of the feast, and I was struck by how incredibly similar the arguments used to try to persuade St. Thomas to "bend" were to those that we are so frequently confronted with today. It was truly uncanny. It really showed how what makes the difference in most of our lives are the *little* details and the somewhat ordinary--things that seem to be very unimportant or at least subject to discussion.

Gareth Russell said...

I'm never entirely sure what I think of this movie. It certainly belongs to a time where hopefulness and atmosphere were both more faithfully adhered to and proclaimed in cinema - within that genre, "Anne of the Thousand Days" and "Elizabeth R" both join "A Man For All Seasons" in outstripping anything that's been produced on the period in recent years. And at times, I'm very moved by "A Man For All Seasons" and I think Shaw's performance as Henry VIII is one of the best there is. However, sometimes I feel it does downplay Thomas More's religiosity. He seems more like a martyr for the individual right to private conscience, rather than Catholicism itself, which is surely what the real More died for. Nonetheless, it certainly does pack an emotional clout. It's beautifully directed and iconic in some of its scenes. On a small side note, Vanessa Redgrave's cameo as Anne Boleyn which is non-speaking seems to have made quite an impact and is indicative of this movie's appeal to people's emotions. In a recent online poll asking who had given the definitive onscreen performance of Anne Boleyn, Vanessa Redgrave's non-speaking cameo beat-out Natalie Portman, Jodhi May, Oona Kirsch, Helena Bonham-Carter, Elaine Stewart, Merle Oberon and Charlotte Rampling; it was beaten only by Natalie Dormer, Dame Dorothy Tutin and Genevieve Bujold. Shaw's Henry VIII came in as number 1, beating Richard Burton to number 2 and Charles Laughton to number 3.

Christina said...

However, sometimes I feel it does downplay Thomas More's religiosity. He seems more like a martyr for the individual right to private conscience, rather than Catholicism itself, which is surely what the real More died for.

I believe this was Robert Bolt's intention - he was an agnostic and surely saw More's integrity of conscience, not his religion, as More's most admirable quality.

I admire St. Thomas More - he really was a "man for all seasons" and his story is quite important for us today.

Matterhorn said...

I have often been moved by and enjoyed this film, yet I rather agree with Mr. Russell when he says:

"However, sometimes I feel it does downplay Thomas More's religiosity. He seems more like a martyr for the individual right to private conscience, rather than Catholicism itself, which is surely what the real More died for."