I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The most recent one I watched was the 1966 winner, A Man for All Seasons, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, Susannah York and Robert Shaw (I'll come back to the 1965 winner, The Sound of Music, at a later time).
A Man for All Seasons is a historical film that takes an intimate look at the religious and political factors at play during the reign of Henry VIII, in particular as it affected Sir Thomas More. While the first half of the film seems dry, it sets up the events of the second half.
The other competitors that year were Alfie; The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming; The Sand Pebbles and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
While Henry VIII is the primary mover of the events in this film, he is not seen on screen for the first half hour. In all, he appears in just a few scenes. The film, rather, follows Sir Thomas More, played by Paul Scofield, a respected scholar and statesman who runs into trouble when he expresses disagreement with the king's divorce of the barren Queen Catherine in order to marry mistress Ann Boleyn, all in pursuit of a male heir.
For those not familiar with the historical context, Henry VIII was not permitted within the Catholic church to divorce and remarry. Therefore, he would eventually found his own church, the Church of England, or Anglican Church, which would allow it. At this point, however, he was trying to force the Catholic Church to consent to his divorce, arguing that Catherine had never been a legitimate wife, since she was his brother's widow. Henry's actions led to fierce disagreements between different factions, with some courtiers siding with the king, whether or not they actually agreed, and others, such as Sir Thomas More, registering their protests, to the great displeasure of the king.
Scofield is well cast as Sir Thomas More and consequently won the Oscar for Best Actor. Scofield, who also played the part in the Broadway production of the play, brings a certain gravity to the part, a thoughtfulness essential to the role. It's easy to believe that he is guided by a strong moral compass. Reportedly, the producers originally wanted Laurence Olivier to play More, but director Zinnemann insisted on Scofield. Charlton Heston also lobbied for the part but was never seriously considered.
By contrast to the reserved More, Robert Shaw plays Henry as a mercurial, hedonistic regent with gold robes and a broad, confident stance. Henry is almost childlike, wanting all his demands to be immediately met. This, of course, does not bode well for Sir Thomas More, who feels compelled to take a moral stand.
Much of the film is shot on location, making use of actual English castles, lending it an air of authenticity. Attention to detail in costuming also helps. For example, the seal of the Chancellor was exactly patterned off the historical seal.
Orson Welles plays a small role as Cardinal Wolsey, who likewise had disapproved of the king's desire to divorce his wife and whose death made Sir Thomas More the chancellor. Susannah York, in period costume again (we last saw her in 19th century garb in Tom Jones), plays Sir Thomas More's daughter, who urges him to change his mind and escape retribution.
The movie is based on a play by Robert Bolt, who also adapted it for the screen. That is probably one reason why it's such an economical version. This is not a grand epic, filled with gaudy backdrops and hundreds of extras, and it's all the better for it. The film focuses, rather, on the characters and the dialogue. A lavish production would have flown in the face of such a story, which follows a very simple man, who adheres to his beliefs, even under the threat of death.
In a film as dialogue-heavy a this one, missing an important line can cloud understanding. I thought initially that might be why I misunderstood the intense dislike that some people expressed for Richard Rich (played by John Hurt). Watching the film a second time, however, I realized that his is a subtle transformation; Richard Rich is merely an opportunist who attracts disdain as a result.
The first half of the film serves to set up the second half, where Sir Thomas More must deal with Henry's wrath at his refusal to approve the divorce. The dialogue, while not Shakespearean, has a loftiness to it that may make it less accessible to some viewers. However, Scofield's subtle acting makes such dialogue feel realistic.
Ultimately, I felt that I should have liked this film more than I did. After all, the casting is good, the story is focused and told well, and other elements of the film support the story well. Nevertheless, A Man for All Seasons simply did not have the "wow" factor of the more recent court drama, Elizabeth (1998), which traces the events leading to Queen Elizabeth I's ascent to the throne. Perhaps the difference is that Elizabeth shows us the intrigue from several perspectives, whereas A Man for All Seasons focuses on the levelheaded, dispassionate Sir Thomas More.
While this film may not be for everyone, it provides insight into an important historical time. It is also one of only four films to win both the Best Play Tony and the Best Picture Oscar, the others being My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Amadeus.
Rating (3 1/2 out of 5): *** 1/2
Integrity is not always valued by the powers that be.