Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Courage of A Man for All Seasons

By Steve Evans
This sumptuous historical drama stars Paul Scofield, reprising his stage role as Sir Thomas More, a 16th century English Lord Chancellor who dared support the divine right of the Pope to supersede the authority of King Henry VIII (a craven Robert Shaw who plays the monarch like a spoiled – and lethal – brat). Sir More’s refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy, which declared King Henry the supreme leader of the Church of England, cost the statesman his life. More was beheaded July 6, 1535.

As the film opens, Sir More is named to succeed the dying Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) as Lord Chancellor of England. A quiet stoic and man of unassailable principles, More pledges his allegiance to the church just as King Henry VIII maneuvers to secure an annulment from wife No. 1, Catherine of Aragon (Henry was married six times, had three known mistresses and, between them all, fathered at least nine children for whom there are historical records). Catherine’s two sons with Henry died in infancy; the king was desperate to leave an heir and wanted to ditch her for the charms of the younger Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave).

More’s refusal to acquiesce to the king’s demands sets the plot in motion. It is an obstinate, immovable battle of wills between More, a man of bedrock principles, and a monarch whose thoughts evidently extended no further than the tip of his cock. (Robert Shaw turns in a memorably manic performance as the king, who is almost certainly insane {history would confirm this}. Shaw's ability to convey such dark obsession and lethal cunning would serve him well almost a decade later in his role as Quint, the Ahab-like shark hunter in Jaws.)

The excitable King Henry sets himself up as the spiritual and political sovereign of England, and the bishops, seeing that their lives are at stake, quickly fall into line with the act of Parliament that makes Henry leader of the Church of England.

More resigns as Lord Chancellor and refuses to speak of the king’s political maneuvers. But his silence offends Henry's supporters, mainly the ambitious Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern).

Cromwell and his allies demand that Sir More take an oath recognizing King Henry as ruler of both church and state. More stands by his religious convictions and declines the oath. Soon Cromwell and his overzealous aide Richard Rich (a very young John Hurt), formerly a friend to Sir More, conspire to bring false charges of high treason against More.

His subsequent trial by kangaroo court is the highlight of the film, in which More masterfully states his position with airtight logic to a roomful of enemies against whom he has no hope of winning. That More follows his convictions against all odds and certain death is both testament to the true nobility of his character and the essential theme of the film. It is this: in Sir Thomas More, we glimpse humanity at its potential best. He is a man who refuses to swerve from his spiritual and intellectual convictions despite the insistence of a morally bankrupt monarch. Actor Paul Scofield exhibits a degree of emotional control that is breathtaking to witness. He is not only unbroken but unbowed, resolute and unwavering in his position.

More rails against the tyranny of evil men in a model of nonviolent resistance that would be echoed four centuries later in the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who suffered similar fates for their beliefs.

Since canonized into Sainthood, More was an author, lawyer, and statesman who became a renowned Renaissance humanist scholar. More also created the word “Utopia,” as the name of his imaginary island nation and its political system -- outlined in his 1516 novel of the same name.

The film does not address his controversial tenure as Lord Chancellor from 1529–1532, during which time he ordered several people burned at the stake for heresy.

Playwright Robert Bolt adapted his play for the 1966 production of this film, faithfully directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon). A Man for All Seasons won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Scofield), Best Director ( Zinnemann), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bolt), Cinematography, and Costume Design.

But it is Scofield’s triumphant performance that makes A Man for All Seasons linger in the mind’s eye. Through his words, but more importantly though his deeds, we are witness to an inspiring portrait of courage and fortitude. Such are the traits we might hope for ourselves as we struggle with the daily trials and travails of this wearisome world.

(Cteve notes: This one is dedicated to Claudia, who has always stood by the courage of her convictions. She is a wondrous inspiration and a sterling example of warmth and human kindness for me to follow day by blessed day).

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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