A Man for All Seasons is another favorite film of mine that I rewatched recently. I’d put it in my top twenty favorite movies for sure, and possibly top ten.
A Man for All Seasons is the story of Sir Thomas More and his clash with King Henry VIII over the king’s breaking with the Catholic Church in order to divorce his first wife.
Normally one of my pet peeves about supposedly nonfiction movies is how much liberty they take with the truth, the way they too freely alter the facts to make the points they want to make and create a story that will be more pleasing to the audience (in a way that would never be tolerated in, say, a nonfiction book). I more or less suspend that objection for A Man for All Seasons, though. I haven’t researched the history sufficiently to be confident how and how far the movie strays from historical events, as it doesn’t feel to me like it’s particularly presenting itself as realistic history, with its dramatic speechifying-style dialogue. I think of it as a morality tale based—perhaps loosely, I don’t know—on actual events, like a Shakespearean play. And indeed A Man for All Seasons started as a play.
Anyway, according to the movie version of the story, King Henry VIII is determined to divorce his wife, who has failed to produce a male heir that survived infancy. Such a divorce would violate Catholic rules of marriage, but Henry requests a special dispensation from the Pope to override the rules. His grounds are that he had received such a papal dispensation to marry his wife in the first place because she had briefly been married to his brother and the Bible (ambiguously) forbids marrying one’s brother’s widow. So now the Pope need only acknowledge that the initial dispensation had been in error and the marriage had never really been a legal marriage, so it can be annulled as if it never happened.
The Pope refuses to cooperate with this scheme. Henry responds by taking over the Catholic Church in England and basically starting a new religion, a form of Protestantism, with his first instruction to his new church being that it grant him his divorce so he can remarry.
Henry is able to browbeat all relevant parties—his high officials, members of the nobility, the Catholic Church officials in England, etc.—into going along with all this, with one exception—Sir Thomas. (In real life, there were apparently other significant figures who did not cooperate, but in the movie—and play—Sir Thomas stands alone, to maximize the dramatic effect.)
And Sir Thomas isn’t just some random bigwig (not that opposition would have likely been tolerated even if he had been), but a man who has held some of the highest offices in the land, including Lord Chancellor, a recognized expert in Church doctrine, and someone with a stellar reputation as pious and incorruptible. His opinion, in other words, carries great weight.
Henry and his minions gradually turn up the heat on Sir Thomas, but he remains firm. Ironically, he has a stronger disposition to be loyal to his king than just about anyone, one that he will override only for the most serious reasons of principle.
He is careful never to explicitly express his opposition to anything the king does. He simply remains silent on the matter, refusing to affirm the king’s actions but not disclosing why. He is a lawyer by background, and he believes that if he keeps his mouth shut the law cannot touch him.
The powers that be seem to agree, as, led by the odious Cromwell, they try everything they can to get Sir Thomas to either take the oath accepting the supremacy of the king over the church or to openly state that he opposes it, implying that until he does one or the other he must remain in limbo, not yet punishable.
But then they do take it so far as to imprison him in the Tower of London. Still, they acknowledge that they cannot convict him of treason if he doesn’t make explicit his position.
Ultimately, though, Cromwell prevails upon the young and ambitious Richard Rich to make up a story that Sir Thomas condemned the king’s actions in a private conversation with him. This perjury results in Sir Thomas’s conviction and subsequent execution.
The acting in A Man for All Seasons is terrific throughout, most notably in the person of Shakespearean actor Paul Scofield in the lead as Sir Thomas. But not only him. Another performance that stands out to me is that of a young John Hurt as Rich. Rich is clearly a villain in the story, but whereas someone like Cromwell is more blatantly unprincipled, Rich very much wants to rise to high office while being a good person. When push comes to shove, it turns out that his second choice is to rise to high office and sacrifice being a good person rather than to remain a good person and sacrifice the opportunity to rise to high office, but it’s a distant second, and it takes him a long time to make the compromise and it tortures him to do so. Hurt nails the part, as we can see written clearly on his face the ordeal of conscience that Rich undergoes in relinquishing his soul.
I experience A Man for All Seasons as a series of high points, of dramatically powerful, iconic scenes and memorable, extraordinary dialogue. This is truly compelling stuff. I’ll mention three scenes in particular that stand out to me; there are others.
Maybe my favorite scene of all is when Rich shows up at Sir Thomas’s house, terribly nervous, basically begging without coming right out and saying it for Sir Thomas to offer him some kind of position, some kind of favor, that will provide him a way out of the betrayal he fears he’s too weak to resist. Sir Thomas flatly turns him down, and Rich leaves, crestfallen. Sir Thomas’s family and guests, especially his daughter’s suitor William Roper, plead with him to stop Rich, to have him arrested:
Sir Thomas: [Not] if he were the Devil himself until he broke the law.
Roper: So, now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
Sir Thomas: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes! I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
Later in the movie, but before Rich has perjured himself to condemn Sir Thomas, Sir Thomas is interrogated by Cromwell, who makes it clear that he’ll stop at nothing to do the king’s bidding and get Sir Thomas to take the oath:
Sir Thomas: I will not take this oath. But why I will not, you, Master Secretary, will not trick out of me.
Cromwell: I might get it out of you in other ways.
Sir Thomas: You threaten like a dockside bully.
Cromwell: How should I threaten?
Sir Thomas: Like a minister of state. With justice.
Cromwell: Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with!
Sir Thomas: Then I am not threatened.
Finally, Sir Thomas accepts his martyrdom with the heroic confidence and contentment of a man whose soul is at peace:
Sir Thomas: I am commanded by the king to be brief. And since I am the king’s obedient subject, brief I will be. I die His Majesty’s good servant. But God’s first.
(The hooded executioner, overcome with emotion, kneels to Sir Thomas in apology for what he must do.)
Sir Thomas: I forgive you, right readily.
(The executioner rises, and Sir Thomas hands him a coin, and leans in to speak softly to him.)
Sir Thomas: Be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.
Archbishop Cranmer (church official overseeing the proceedings): You’re very sure of that, Sir Thomas?
Sir Thomas: He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.
(The screen goes black right as we hear the awful thump of the blade ending the life of Sir Thomas.)
It is scenes like these that make it easy to see why Paul Scofield won the Best Actor Oscar that year.
I’ll mention just a couple more thoughts I had on the movie.
Compared to YouTube clips of other versions of the story that I’ve seen, and the very modest amount of reading I’ve done on the history of this period, one way that A Man for All Seasons differs is in its lack of emphasis on what a painful and difficult struggle this all was for King Henry as well.
The King had the highest regard for Sir Thomas and considered him a close friend. So it was only with great reluctance that he kept upping the pressure on him and ultimately allowed him to be executed.
And it isn’t like he was motivated just by some frivolous desire to have a different woman. There was some of that, but mostly he desperately wanted a male heir to the throne, and he was convinced that that could never happen with his current wife. Furthermore, the desire for an heir was not itself just a matter of personal ego; he believed that a stable and uncontroversial succession required it, and that in its absence there was a great risk that after his death the country would be plunged into a period of palace intrigue, competing claims to the throne as competing factions developed, and possibly even civil war. He truly believed that the country and its people would be in great peril if he were not able to gain control of the church, secure a divorce, and remarry. Up against that he had to put the conscience and ultimately the life of a man he greatly admired and loved.
We don’t get much of that in A Man for All Seasons. Also, I wonder if some viewers will be puzzled or put off by its portrait of the king as a robust and hearty fellow, brimming with vigor, far from the comically obese tyrant we’re used to. But as I understand it, that’s pretty much what he was like during this time. It was only later that his physical and mental health deteriorated dramatically (some say from syphilis, though I’ve read that that’s likely a myth), his weight ballooned up to as much as 400 pounds, and he became insane with megalomania and took to chopping off heads willy nilly.
One question I have in pondering the story is whether Sir Thomas was justified in being so legalistic in his behavior. As I noted, he was trying to thread the needle by refraining from taking the required oath but supposedly not violating the law in doing so since he remained silent on the matter rather than stating his disagreement explicitly. Further, as he explained to his family, really he was bending over backwards trying to find some way he could agree to the oath without violating his conscience, though he never managed to do so. He was not seeking martyrdom; he was willing to accept it only as a last resort when all other morally acceptable avenues were closed off to him.
But, as heroic and inspiring as his example is, would he have manifested even greater courage, and possibly had an even greater impact, had he stood up from the beginning and announced, loudly and clearly, exactly what his objection was, made the best case he could for it according to law, morality, and church doctrine, and accepted the consequences of doing so?
I have trouble picturing Gandhi, for instance, being quite so coy about something he regarded as the gravest matter of conscience.
In any case, it’s a wonderful movie, and a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what it is to remain true to one’s convictions in the most extreme circumstances.