Such Divinity Doth Hedge a King
Screening in MoMA’s “The Sixties: Yanks in Britain,” A Man for All Seasons won six major 1966 Oscars but was directed and produced by a Viennese “Yank” who had worked in Paris and Berlin before crossing the Atlantic at twenty-two. Fred Zinnemann got his first Academy Award (of three) for a documentary and went on to make some of our most critically and publically acclaimed and enduring films and yet, four projects aborted in pre-production or handed over to others, did not complete another feature, also in Europe, until 1973. Some viewers have preferred the longer 1988 Charlton Heston-directed and –starred in TV version reworked by Robert Bolt from this his earlier collaboration with Constance Willis, itself adapted from Bolt’s London stageplay starring Paul Scofield and, two decades later, Heston.
In the Zinnemann mold of individual integrity squaring off against mass obsession, the film may be taken today as commentary on current venality and corruption, bedding and wedding, in Whitehall and Washington and elsewhere. Ted Moore’s cinematography is elegy to the seasons in sixteenth-century country- and riverside between Chelsea and Hampton, yet in each bare-bones-grey locale the stage origins are apparent in restatement of the two central strong wills in conflict.
These opposed stances are ideological and difficult of visualization, but the two-hours is in the main admirable in not resorting to straight debate, declamation or histrionics, with the exceptions of the trial scene summing-up and of Robert Shaw’s slim “King Henry, the eighth of that name.” Political, religious and personal niceties of the period are streamlined, and the play’s caustic Common Man dropped altogether, to concentrate on the impressive steadfastness of Sir Thomas More (Scofield).
As obese as the Henry Tudor of middle age and popular picture, Orson Welles cameos as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, twice candidate for the papacy but now Lord Chancellor urging internationally esteemed More to support royal divorce/annulment from his brother’s widow, Katharine of Aragón, and thus legal marriage to mistress Anne Boleyn (a brief Vanessa Redgrave). The Cardinal falls from grace, and the humanist lawyer-scholar-Utopia author is named to fill his place, in expectation of cooperation. But his evenhanded initial rejection of oversweet daughter Margaret’s (Susannah York) Dissenter beau Will Roper (Corin Redgrave), indicates the man’s uncompromising views on the conscience of religion.
More resigns the office amid threats, bullying, cautions from longtime friend Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport), and the concerns of wife Alice (Wendy Hiller). Beyond poverty and the perils of a mercurial spoiled monarch and his Act of Supremacy -- left out is that Catholic Spain’s Holy Roman Emperor king and pope-maker was nephew to jilted Queen Katharine -- lay ambitious, unscrupulous Iago-like vicar-general Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). For reasons and non-reasons, this motiveless malignancy seeks More’s head, by means fair or foul, legal or extra-, using as Judas-Rodrigo wispy-whiskered Richard Rich (John Hurt), once suppliant at the target’s household.
Greek to most, the ins and outs of sixteenth century English reformation and intrigue are too much for cinema or summary. Lesser-known fates are glibly end-title glossed over, and, if not generally familiar before, the hero’s beheading had already become common knowledge through the play and film publicity. Therefore, lacking suspense as well as stage intimacy, the Zinnemann version had to avoid at all costs the danger that unadulterated virtue might come across as stuffed-shirt dry. Beatified in 1886 and canonized as a martyr of the Church in 1935, patron of lawyers Saint Thomas More lives in Scofield’s masterful incarnation of his own man, “the King’s good servant but God’s first.”
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated “G” by MPAA.)