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Reluctant hero with a sense of destiny

28 July 2017

Stephen Brown on an iconic part for the late Paul Scofield

More the hero: Paul Scofield as Thomas More (centre foreground, left) in A Man for All Seasons

More the hero: Paul Scofield as Thomas More (centre foreground, left) in A Man for All Seasons

THOMAS MORE, Lord Chancellor of England from 1529, was called “a man of marvellous mirth and pas­times, and sometime of as sad gravity, as who say: a man for all sea­sons.” The 1966 film is based on Robert Bolt’s play. While I miss the Common Man’s final speech (”It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends — just don’t make trouble”), it is too theatrical a de­­vice for film. Even so, the film’s last words, delivered by a narrator, are from one of Common Man’s earlier speeches.

Paul Scofield as More, though, can do no other than make trouble when forced into a difficult posi­tion. King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw, Jaws, From Russia with Love) demands approval of the annul­ment of his marriage, and his mar­riage to Anne Boleyn. Torn between con­science and duty to the Crown, More says nothing, sparking the king’s rage. What unfolds is a battle of wills packed with palace intrigue, political brinkmanship and the fate of the man, Church, and country. In the end, his silence speaks loudest.

The director Fred Zinnemann’s film was lavished with awards and critical praise on its release, for its opulent mise-en-scène and the in­­credible performances from its cast. Zinneman had a history of making films about reluctant heroes with a strong sense of destiny. As in High Noon and other films of his, the hero is almost entirely unsupported by family or friends. It is hard to find in any of his work (even Oklahoma) an ending in which everybody lives happily ever after.

In its Masters of Cinema Series, Eureka Video has transcribed on to DVD/Blu-ray for the first time in the UK A Man for All Seasons in a special HD dual-format edition (EKA70244). It includes audio commentary by the film historians Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo, and Lem Dobbs; a new video interview with the film scholar Neil Sinyard; a The Life of Saint Thomas More featur­ette; and the original theatrical trailer, as well as a booklet with new writing on the film.

In the light of Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, it is interesting to re-­watch the film’s uncomplicated view of its hero. Mantel casts More as the villain, considering Thomas Cromwell in a kinder light. Though More has been canonised, it is hard to overlook his own persecution of “heretics”. Whatever were the full facts, A Man for All Seasons is a direct appeal to decency and courage. Even if today’s audiences might puzzle over someone prepared to martyr himself over his sovereign’s marriage problem, we can surely relate to the dilemma of a politician who is expected to advance laws that he can’t support.

In the 1960s, cinemagoers would have identified with Zinne­man’s exposure of the ini­quity of show trials, whether the Soviet ones then current or those of the still recent Third Reich in his native Vienna. In many ways, it is as much a political as a religious film. Pope John Paul II nominated More the patron saint of politicians. A Man for All Seasons works best when it is read as about one who, according to his lights, believed con­science to be God-given and, there­fore, to be heeded above the lesser claims of state, devilishly seductive though they may be.


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