The Best Picture Project – A Man For All Seasons (1966)

Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Starring Paul Schofield, Leo McKern, John Hurt, Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw and Orson Wells

Written by Robert Bolt, from his play of the same name

I struggled a little bit with A Man For All Seasons.  It wasn’t that the movie was bad, and I thought it didn’t deserve to win best picture.  Or that the performances were bad, or the writing was boring, because none of that was true.  Rather, I struggled because A Man For All Seasons happens to be one of those films that, despite winning Best Picture, falls into the category of ‘doesn’t invoke passion from me.’  Perhaps if I were a Brit, or overly religious and cared about the reformation of the church in England, I’d have some way into the film, but I don’t.  Instead, it’s just another of those movies that I saw that, despite finding nothing I could really fault about it, I also couldn’t find anything to trumpet about it.

Part of the struggle, as you can imagine, is the subject of the film itself.

The basic plot of the film revolves around the religious struggle of Sir Thomas More, specifically the predicament he finds himself in as a good catholic when King Henry VIII decides he wants his marriage to Catherine of Aragorn annulled, for lack of producing sons, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.  Thomas More, believing the marriage cannot be annulled, for various reasons and therefore refuses to put pressure on the pope to offer the annulment, finds himself on Henry’s bad side.  Eventually, when More refuses to swear to an oath that endorses the marriage, he is tried for treason and beheaded.

Certainly, in the plot, there is quite a bit to fire the passions.  First, it’s about religion, and nothing fires people up about religion.  But even though I generally don’t subscribe to the notion of god, I’m no fervent atheist, so I wasn’t at all offended by religion in the plot.  After all, the story is less about god than one man’s personal philosophy and his principles and so what if his principles were based on his religion.  But I digress.

Second, there is Henry VIII, who comes across like a strutting, petulant child.  He should capture the imagination of the film and form its fiery center, but unfortunately, despite having the film revolve around him, he barely shows up on screen – this is spite of the fact that Robert Shaw manages to cop a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his limited appearance.  No, the story is about the king, but only as seen through the eyes and struggle of Thomas More

Third, there is the whole allegory of the struggle for identity and independence against a strong central government.  With the way the American political system has gone ape-shit lately, maybe this would strike a proper note, but it doesn’t.  It only proves that, no matter how much people may want to change things, the government is largely going to do what it does.

Fourth, there is the complete misuse of capital punishment.  Being largely skeptical about the death penalty – I’m for it in that it should be safe, legal and rare – the king cutting the head off one of his advisors and friends simply because he wouldn’t sanctify the marriage should be ghastly, and it is.  But it happened five hundred years ago and it’s too late now to get worked up about.

Incidentally, when people talk about the good old days, I wonder if they know kings had no compunction about executing people for silly reasons?  Ah, the good old decapitating days.

In the end, while the film has a lot of big ideas and other things that might otherwise capture the imagination, the truth is that the film is simply about a divorce and a man refusing to accept it.  That’s it.  A divorce.  I suppose, 500 years ago, this would have been a big deal, hot button issue, since the reformation of the church in England happened over this issue, but it really was a matter for me of, “Who cares?”

And that’s where I am, at “Who cares?”  It was good, not great, that’s really the best I can give.

Sadly, I think this is just going to have to be one of those times where, everything in the film worked as it should: the direction was fine – I did particularly like the time-passage shots of summer to spring to fall to winter and back again that comes up about 90 minutes into the film – the performances were good, the costumes were very costumey, but despite it, the film never rises up to being anything more than a rather unmoving piece of cinema that did everything it was supposed to and that, if the film hadn’t been released in a year when it’s only real competition was the filthy-mouthed and caustic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a film none of the old guard in the academy could ever bring itself to vote for, it wouldn’t have won at all.

Perhaps the only part of the film that generates any real passion for me is the performance of Leo McKern as Cromwell.  Previously, I’d really only known him for a brief bit he did in The Omen, and for his part in the original series of The Prisoner, but here, he’s a revelation to me.  Playing the cunning, devious and ultimately soulless Cromwell as Henry’s hatchet man, he forms the true hub around which this film spins – not Henry VIII – and if anybody deserved a nomination for his performance in the film, it was McKern.

For a list of other winners and films seen, click here.

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