Some films are what I jokingly refer to as a “two Coke movie.” You see, most of my viewing takes place in the relative comforts of the home in which I live. Comfort is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, who does not want a place where one can take their ease? On the other, too much of it can lead to drooping eyelids and nodding heads. I never take naps. And I usually wait until after dinner to watch my movie for the evening, meaning that I have a full stomach sapping my will to remain awake. I combat this with a carbonated beverage, my dessert for the meal. This would have been my modus operandi for getting through A Man for All Seasons (1966). The problem is that this is Lent and I abstain from sugar during the course of these forty days. I wish it were otherwise as it is a film about a wonderful Catholic saint who stood up to tyranny using his God given wit, but checking my watch to see how much time was left soon turned into almost falling asleep. I made it through, but just barely.
While watching A Man for All Seasons, I imagined sitting down, rolling up my metaphorical sleeves (I am currently in short sleeves), cracking a bunch of joints, and getting to some furious typing. So far, so good. The film combines two of my favorite subjects: history and Catholicism. Its snail pace is the problem. If you do not know who St. Thomas More (Paul Scofield) was, he was a sixteenth century English lawyer and a one-time close friend of King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw). The issue of the day is Henry VIII’s controversial divorce of his wife Catherine of Aragon, and his desire to remarry his mistress Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave). There are several roadblocks to this, mainly the Catholic Church, and early on in the film then Sir Thomas More (obviously, he was not a saint yet) is summoned to Hampton Court palace to discuss this matter with Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles). Cardinal Wolsey is Henry VIII current chancellor (think, basically, like the prime minister currently in charge of the United Kingdom) and despite the objections of the Pope, he is trying to figure out some way of sanctioning the king’s act. As someone trusted by the king, Cardinal Wolsey seeks More’s opinion on the matter. More is caught between two opposing forces. On one side is his friendship with the king and loyalty to his country; on the other side is his Catholic Faith that informs practically every aspect of his character. He is also too cagey to publicly and definitively commit to one or the other, but we do see it applied when he returns home from meeting Cardinal Wolsey. When More arrives, his daughter Margaret (Susannah York) is being visited at an odd hour by her suitor, Roper (Corin Redgrave), a man who sees the Catholic Church as corrupt and has turned his back on it. More sees Roper as a heretic and will not consent to his marriage proposal to Margaret. Thus, you get a sense of where his true loyalties lay. When Cardinal Wolsey dies, the king names More the next chancellor, thinking his friend would surely give the official stamp of approval to his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Because the Church has not assented, neither does More, though he is careful to remain silent on the matter. Nonetheless, this is viewed as a treasonous act, causing the king to strip More of his place in the government and place him in jail. During his trial, at first he stays mum, simply pointing to the lack of evidence for treason. But when Rich (John Hurt), a former pupil of his, gives a false testimony that More said things against the king, they convict More on all charges. The sentence is death. Seeing there is nothing more to be done, he finally lets his true feelings show, reminding his accusers of the loyalties to Rome as set down in the Magna Carta (essentially England’s constitution) and in the king’s oath he takes upon ascending the throne. The film ends with More’s execution by beheading, forgiving the executioner and giving him a little boost of confidence for the awful task by reminding him that Heaven awaits.
I should like A Man for All Seasons more (no pun intended). I admire people who stick to their convictions in the face of overwhelming pressure. I can identify with such acts in my own small way, though I have thankfully never had to face death for doing so. The problem for me, personally, with this movie is that the film version seems to have kept the same pacing as the play from which it was adapted. When done on the stage, it is understandable to take some time with each scene because you are dealing with a static setting that can only be changed with difficulty. This is noticeable when you have long sequences of dialog, and there are only a handful of settings they occur in throughout the whole movie. This is sleep inducing for me, and a major reason why I do not care for movies like Pulp Fiction (1994). A motion picture is not tied to one place, thus you can do more interesting things with camera angles and cut scenes. So, while I loved More’s character, it was all a bit boring to my tastes.
If you can get through the slow pace of A Man for All Seasons, then I recommend it. Boringness aside, there are many levels on which it works. For instance, if you are a politician, then St. Thomas More is your patron saint. In a broader sense, St. Thomas More is a great person to study in this day and age. Before his execution, King Henry VIII was one of the most popular rulers in English history. Indeed, he is still well known today, though for more infamous reasons. In the sixteenth century, people were generally in support of his divorce and breaking with the Catholic Church. This is understandable when you see the size and opulence of Cardinal Wolsey’s residence at Hampton Court palace. Even More at the beginning is not above making jokes at the expense of the Church. If you think things are bad now, you should research what the Church was like in the sixteenth century. Yet the oft repeated phrase of More in the movie is an important one to remember, and that is simply that the Catholic Church is the one that descends from the Chair of Peter. In other words, it is the one that most closely harkens back to the time of Our Savior. That is worth reforming, which happened in More’s time and continues to this day, and it is worth defending. If St. Thomas More can do this in this face of possible execution, we can certainly do it today. He could have gone the way of the crowd as so many do today. But some things should be held onto no matter what, and your Faith is the most important of all. To echo St. Thomas More from the scaffold, he was his king’s servant, but he was God’s first.