Nov. 25, 2005
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Grade: 62/100

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Stars: Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, John Hurt

What it's about. King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) wants to divorce his wife and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas More refuses to sanction the divorce, which earns the king's wrath and moves More ever closer to the execution block.

How others will see it. This prestige picture is a quality production, and the cast, sets, and costumes are adept. The script is thoughtful, and the direction is competent.

But it won't be enough for those with short attention spans, who may find the subject too dry. Others will be disappointed that Orson Welles is killed off so early in the movie. Still others will consider More to be a nincompoop, sacrificing everything because he believes the pope has religious authority over the king. The pope may have religion, but he has no authority over Henry VIII, who does as he pleases.

The people I am afraid of are those who respect More for sticking to his position, even under the pain of death. More is steadfast in his belief that his temporal life is unimportant compared to the glories of Heaven, and that his status there could be denied by simply giving assent to the erratic behavior of a king, who will get his way in any event.

How I felt about it. More's position is madness, despite its seeming logic. If he truly believes entrace to Heaven requires such absolute obedience to both civil law and God's law (whatever that really is, since many variants exist), then no one would be allowed entrance. Except perhaps Sir Thomas More, who would find the kingdom of Heaven to be lonely, since everyone else would be down under.

Thus, More is not made for this world, which constantly requires accommodation with those who control your fate. This accommodation is not merely the fulfillment of written law, but also includes satisfying the unwritten will of authority.

If the king wants to change one wife for another, what business is it for More to oppose it, particularly when his opposition is both ineffectual and dangerous. Why be a martyr for a lost cause, and a foolish cause as well.

Should someone be forced to remain until death in a loveless, empty marriage? Granted, it is hard to sympathize with a spoiled king, who deals with his enemies, real or imagined, by dispensing with their heads. It is hard to sympathize with Cromwell (Leo McKern), an unprincipled man who connives for power, or with Richard Rich (John Hurt), who at least feels guilty about exchanging integrity for position.

But in their way, they are all just trying to get through their lives in a difficult era, while More is willing to throw away his life to prevent publicly lying to God. Earth to More: God probably doesn't particularly care, and may not even keep a checklist.