Paul Scofield is perhaps best regarded for his onstage Shakespearean work. From Hamlet to Henry V Scofield firmly established himself as a reckoning force of British theatre, and Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons, sees him channel all the ill-fated, tragic air that characterises the plays he so often donned, notwithstanding an impenetrable integrity which guided him to Oscar gold.
Scofield plays Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England at the height of Henry VIII’s reign, with the film detailing his refusal to advocate the Kings annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and his following refusal to take an oath declaring Henry VIII the Supreme Head of Church.
Immediate in the characterisation of More is his steadfastness in conscience. He is challenged at every turn to endorse the power crazed King, but his duty to the sanctity of the Catholic Church inspires an unwavering resilience in his morals.
The film’s first key interaction is between More and the initial Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, a magnetic Orson Welles, who pleads for More to “come back to Earth” and endorse the King in his annulment. But Thomas is assured and resolute in his refusal and so paves the way for the films structure. A Man for All Seasons essentially becomes a series of confrontations, each haunted by a wind of volatility, in which More’s steadfast conscience, and the consciences of those around him, are challenged and taunted. There is the ambitious Richard Rich, quietly crazed in his pursuit of political power. The hot headed William Roper, a heretic Lutheran who wishes to take Thomas’ daughter’s hand in marriage. There’s the slippery Cromwell who seems to resent More’s ethical confidence and of course More’s own family who, as the stakes grow higher, plea for him to take the simple route.
Naturally though, it is the unhinged King that provides More’s greatest challenge. A scenery chewing Robert Shaw who bears such a great air of volatility, swivelling on a dime from jovial larrikin to enraged maniac, giving the film an alarming unpredictability. His blazon yellow outfit renders his hotheadedness apparent, one of many features amongst a meticulously recreated 16th century England of sumptuous production design and costumes, as the King strikes fear into the entire landscape.
But through all the lavish period detail and maze of antagonists for Scofield, the film is decidedly stripped back, in both craft and ideology. This is a simple morality tale about staying true to your convictions in the face of adversity and Zinnemann shows great respect for the story. The director reserves the soundscape only for the dialogue, and his greatest visual tools are nothing more than perfectly timed close-ups and slow encroachments on the performers. The screenplay by Robert Bolt, while it may feel dated for some with its heavy religious fixations and reach a level of redundancy with its philosophical and political content, is actually quite taut. Though it is relentless in its subjects there is no wasted movement in the script, every encounter always raising the stakes and testing the integrity of all the characters with each performance proving mesmeric and each milking the poetic dialogue for all its worth. Zinnemann’s standoffish approach is the perfect foil for the cast and screenplay, giving each moment a palpable emotional honesty and anchoring the drama in a captivating realism, particularly paying off in the film’s final act which is completely absorbing.
And then, at the helm of it all, is Mr. Scofield. The perfect sympathetic hero, who for all his bravery and intellect is never lionized in a film which quietly wrings all the possible drama out of its subjects and seemingly dense script. This was the Academy’s eventual pick for Best Picture in 1967, and it’s a strong winner. A Man for All Seasons is in fact a film for all seasons and it’ll be tough to beat.