Friday, July 11, 2014

A Man For All Seasons (Best Picture 1966)

I first saw A Man For All Seasons in high school. I want to say that one of my World History teachers showed it to us over a period of two days, but for some reason I think it was my English teacher...? I don't remember the details, but I do remember thinking that it was a wonderful film. And I remember that at about the same time my family had just watched "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" on PBS (from BBC?), and that there was also Anne of 1,000 Days as well, both about Henry VIII. And of course Herman's Hermit's #1 Pop Hit, "I'm Henry VIII I Am" was from the summer of 1965. What was it about Henry that made him so popular at this time? Actually, when you think of "British Invasion" it usually references the musical side of things, but from the early Sixties a huge amount of British films, actors, and actresses enjoyed unparallelled success. What was it about British motion pictures that made them so popular at this time? Besides this film from 1966 we have previous winners Lawrence of Arabia and Tom Jones, and British thespians Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, and Julie Christie winning top honors those years. After a year off next year, 1968 saw another British film win Best Picture and Katherine Hepburn win Best Actress in The Lion In Winter, a drama about Henry II. 
As for A Man For All Seasons, this is the true story of Sir Thomas More, a devout Catholic in the court of Henry VIII. It features great locations, wonderful costumes, a well-written script, and of course, superb acting.  Henry VIII was the king who went through several wives. He decides he is going to annul the marriage to his first wife Catherine(who was actually his brother's widow) and marry Anne Boleyn. However, the Pope does not agree with this action, so Henry breaks away from the Catholic Church to create the Church of England. More is put in a difficult spot: loyalty to his king, or loyalty to his church.
The first half of the film is setting up the confrontation. There is a wildly dramatic scene after More is named chancellor, and Henry appears at More's mansion to talk about his marriage. More believes himself safe as long as he does not directly state his opposition to the king. Robert Shaw plays Henry VIII as something of a petulant and self-centered child, insisting on his way. It is a marvelous scene to watch as More must choose his words and actions carefully, and Henry for his part is trying to convince his friend to admit his allegiance, something we know More will not (can not) do. In the very next scene, Henry, annoyed at More, refuses dinner at his mansion and rides away on his own royal barge, leaving his sycophants to fend for themselves. It is a silly, but dangerous, omen.

The last half of the film is More facing imprisonment, and then death, for refusing to sign an oath to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn which would, in effect, disavow his loyalty to God. There is a lot of dramatic speeches and verbal jouncing during this part of the film, as several other Lords and noblemen try to convince More to sign the oath. More swears his allegiance to the King and new Queen, but refuses to sign the oath. Finally, a low-level nobleman named Richard Rich (no kidding) perjures himself by giving testimony that More did, in fact, not consider Anne his Queen. More is brought up on charges of treason. After Rich gives his testimony, there is a great scene where More tells the assemblage to choose to believe an honest man like himself over a base liar like Rich. Of course, politics being what they are, it was said that Henry wanted  More executed so as to be done with the whole re-marriage issue. Not long after More is executed, Anne herself is executed and replaced by one of her hand-maidens.
A Man For All Seasons is based on the play by Robert Bolt, who also wrote the screenplay. So there is  not a lot of action, but there is a lot of drama. Is Chancellor Cromwell trying to get More to sign the oath, or trying to get him to not sign it? There is a lot of intrigue and counter-plots, which makes it important to pay close attention to who knows who and who doesn't like who.

Paul Scofield portrays Thomas More, and as he is in the vast majority of the scenes, he really embodies the film. Scofield had played the part on stage, and the producers insisted he be cast in the film version. It is not a surprise that he earned the Best Actor Oscar for his role, beating out Steve McQueen, Richard Burton, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin. Scofield brings a quiet dignity to the role, although he is moved to passionate speech when challenged by Cromwell or Rich. Rich, by the way, is played by a very young John Hurt. Cromwell is played by the great character actor Leo McKern. More's daughter is played by Susannah York. It is a wonderful scene when Henry asks her a question in Latin and she responds; it is painfully obvious to all but she that her level is better than the king's.
If you enjoy talented actors verbally sparring with one another over the fate of Great Britain...well, that is the majority of the period dramas. However, in a sea of period dramas, this one still stands above in the quality of the sums of its parts. This is a well-made piece of entertainment that is truly timeless.

A Man For All Seasons
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1966*
Produced by
Directed  by Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay by Robert Bolt

Winner of 6 Academy Awards, in case you don't catch that! ;-)

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
The Sand Pebbles
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 
Looking at the nominees, I find it hard to believe that anyone would have *not* picked this film to win. Alfie is a character-study of a British womanizer; think Marty meets Tom Jones. It made Michael Caine a star, but he is not a very pleasant character and it is not a very pleasant film. The Russians Are Coming was an example of early gladnost; a Russian submarine accidentally runs aground on a small island off the US east coast. It has it's moments, but it's not really Best Picture material. The Sand Pebbles is a great war movie, with Steve McQueen as an anti-establishment Navy man in 1920s China. And Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the first film where every member of the cast was nominated for an Academy Award; Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis won, but Richard Burton and George Segal lost (to Scofield and Walter Matthau, respectively).

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