Thursday, December 1, 2011

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)


A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (DIR: FRED ZINNEMANN) (SCR: ROBERT BOLT, BASED ON THE PLAY OF THE SAME NAME, ALSO BY BOLT)

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS was the second best picture winner for director Fred Zinnemann, the first being FROM HERE TO ETERNITY in 1953; it was a surprising success, considering that he hadn't had a hit in some time, and that the film lacked any big stars.  Interestingly, it's victory illustrates the continuing influence that the British invasion was having on the Academy: between 1962 and 1966, every best picture winner featured a European born star in the lead role, usually playing an English character.   In any event, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is a well made costume drama that has good  performances and is pleasing to look at; unfortunately, it also drags at times, and its main character is, to me, not quite as heroic as he's supposed to be.
It began as radio play written by Robert Bolt that played on BBC radio in 1954, then on British television in 1957.  Then Bolt adapted it to the stage, and eventually it had a successful run on Broadway.  Eventually, it came to Columbia, who gave Zinnemann a relatively small two million dollar budget to make the film, and then mostly left him on his own, which allowed him to cast Paul Scofield in the lead role of Sir Thomas More, a role that he had performed on stage, even though Scofield was not a well known star.  Other good actors like Robert Shaw, a young John Heard, and Orson Welles (who steals his only scene as the cynical Cardinal Wolsley) were cast and the shoot for the film went without a hitch; it became a surprise hit, making over twenty eight million dollars at the box office.
Set in 16th. Century England, and based on the true story of Sir Thomas More, it reenacts a time of great political and religious tumult in England's history:  King Henry the eighth (Robert Shaw), in dire need of an heir, plans to divorce his current wife, Catherine, so that he can marry his mistress, Ann (an unbilled Vanessa Redgrave). When the pope will not sanction the divorce, the King breaks with the Catholic church; More, who was then high chancellor and a devoted catholic, resigns rather than accept the King's actions.  He hopes to retire quietly, but the King desires More's public approval, which he steadfastly refuses to give, eventually leading to his ruin.
Scofield won an Oscar for the role, and it interesting to see the award go to a performance that is so often   soft spoken and reserved; he only raises his voice once, at the end, when he is literally defending his life.  Still, his performance is forceful even without volume, giving the strong willed More a quiet dignity and strength.  The film's best scene comes when the King arrives to personally plead for More's approval; in stark contrast to Scofield, Shaw's acting is boisterous and full bodied; I love the way he shifts from cajoling to pleading to yelling in an attempt to move the taciturn More.  It is also interesting in that while More's determination in the face of royalty is admirable, we can't help but like the King, who feels he is only asking a reasonable favor, and who's desire for an heir is understandable. So the audience can see both sides of the argument, and we can also sense the warmth and respect the two men have for each other, even as they disagree.  It is disappointing that this is the only scene the two characters share in the movie (Shaw appears again only briefly later in the film), especially since for the rest of the movie More's main adversary is Leo McKern's villainous Cromwell, a far less interesting character than Shaw's.

Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield


Even worse though, is the fact that this confrontation between More and the King is the last great moment in the film, as the rest of the movie quickly becomes a series of predictable (but admittedly well acted) scenes.  Once it is established that More will never give in, the story becomes one long slog of him slowly losing one thing after another, from his position to his freedom to, inevitably, his life.  It is interesting to note that the original radio production was just one hour long, while the film lasts two, and I think the padding of the story shows.
Also, I often find it hard to sympathize with More's stubbornness; here is a man who is willing to lose everything in his life, despite the entreaties of his King, his friends and his family, all to prove a principle.    Early in the film, we see that he refuses to allow his daughter, Margret (Susannah York) to marry a Lutheran (calling him "a heretic"),  so the importance of religion to him is clearly established, and his deference to the Vatican is a logical move for him.  Still, by the end of the film, when he is imprisoned while his family lives in poverty, I just can't feel that he's doing the right thing, and I admire his wife for resolutely saying that she will never understand him.  Personally, I've always felt that it was perfectly reasonable for, say, Galileo,  to publicly admit that  he was wrong about the earth rotating around the sun when the Inquisition threatened to kill him because of it.  I understand how important principles can be to people, but I put human life before ideals, and because of that I can't say that I have  much sympathy for More.   He is also a bit of a fool, since he assumes that the King will allow him to retire peacefully, when it should have been obvious to him that that would never happen.


Paul Scofield





SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While writing about 1964's best picture winner, MY FAIR LADY, I criticized the Academy for picking that old fashioned musical while rejecting the far more dynamic A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, and I feel the same way about this choice; A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is a well mounted and performed adaptation of a play, but it is far less exciting than another play turned into a movie that was released that year: Mike Nichols's adaptation of Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA  WOOLF?.  With   it's great, raw performances by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, (featuring equally raw language!) that was really the best and most memorable movie of that year.