The Oscars Project: Week 9 — A Man For All Seasons

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to The Hurt Locker. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

A Man for All Seasons

A Man For All Seasons (Best Picture, Best Director and four others)

“God damn it, man! It’s disproportionate” — Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk

At its core, A Man For All Seasons is about one prolonged disagreement. King Henry VIII wants his first marriage declared void so that he can remarry and (hopefully) have a son. Sir Thomas More, an esteemed member of British society, thinks that such a move is, according to Catholic doctrine, bullshit. Why More’s view matters isn’t made clear by the film — it’s obvious that he’s well-regarded and that his opinion holds some sway, but he’s certainly no rival to the king. Still, it’s clear that, even if Henry doesn’t need More’s approval, he wants it, and More just isn’t willing to offer it.

From that disagreement stems two hours of political and religious discussion, culminating in imprisonment and death on one side, and the establishment of a new church on the other. Dramatic consequences for a dude who just wants to make little princes with someone who isn’t his wife. Still, you’ll note that I don’t say political intrigue: Despite the weight of the events being depicted, A Man For All Seasons doesn’t go in for much in the way of back-room dealings, and there’s nothing in the film that could remotely qualify as action. Where The Tudors (apparently) mines much of the same source material for boudoir-heavy drama, Seasons takes a more intellectual (and more dry) approach, as it focuses on the sober, wise and even-tempered More over the mercurial, charismatic and lecherous king.

In fact, if the film is to be believed, More is the only good man in England. As a judge, he refuses all bribes, from baked goods to silver chalices. As Lord Chancellor of England, he refuses to play any political games, staying true to himself and his God. If he has a flaw (and, considering the real More ordered at least a half-dozen “heretical” Lutherans burned at the stake, it’s safe to say he might’ve had a dark side), it isn’t present in Robert Bolt’s script or in Paul Scofield’s performance. More was canonized in 1935, and sure enough, Seasons depicts him as a saint.

In some ways, that makes More the least interesting character in his own film. Early on, he is called to the office of Cardinal Wolsey, portrayed by a bloated Orson Welles. Wolsey wonders why More won’t support the king’s efforts to annul his marriage, and while the scene largely exists to provide exposition, it also hints at a wealth of material in Wolsey’s background — everything about him oozes both corruption and world-weariness, and it’s impossible not to wonder how he got to his position.

Then there’s More’s chief rival, Thomas Cromwell, played with great relish by Leo McKern, who has 85 films to his credit (including “Man smiling as Gandalf sets off firework to please children running after his cart” in The Lord of the Rings), but who I’ll always remember as the evil cult leader in the Beatles’ Help. Cromwell is exactly the sort of Machiavellian politician you’d expect in this sort of courtly tale — he seeks alliances with More’s former friends, engineers frame-ups and wallows in his own ambition. Considering his rise to chief minister of the British government and his role in engineering the English Reformation, it’s a pretty safe bet that he’d make for an interesting character study, too.

And neither of them have anything on King Henry VIII himself, as portrayed by Robert Shaw. Shaw’s king hardly has any screen time, but he makes a hell of an impression. One moment he’ll be all joviality and good spirits. The next he’ll be shrieking with anger, before checking himself and returning to his previous facade. He’s accompanied by an absolutely ridiculous gang of nobles who watch him for behavioral cues — if the king laughs, they guffaw; if he’s silent, they eye each other nervously, waiting for the axe to fall. He’s the ultimate in unpredictability — a man-child who has likely never been rebuked, but who still seems to want the approval of his underlings.

But Seasons is about good old steadfast More, and fortunately, Scofield is more than up to the task of carrying the film. In his hands, the character radiates intelligence and conviction in every scene, and while his penchant for well-reasoned argument and legal subtleties isn’t exactly typical Hollywood fodder, that doesn’t make it any less compelling. More maintains his quiet dignity in the face of ever-greater pressure, and even though his giving in is never an option, there’s something gratifying in seeing him cling to his principles in scene after scene. Despite a line of dialogue midway through the film where More declares that he “is not the stuff martyrs are made of,” his eventual martyrdom is inevitable — not just because it actually happened, but because his goodness seems so absolute, and England’s corruption so complete — and that brings its own sort of dramatic drive.

Which is a good thing, because director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity) doesn’t add so much as a lick of style to the film. The production design may be expansive, spanning British estates, lush fields and on and on, but the actual presentation consists of straightforward scenes of straightforward conversations, probably owing greatly to the script’s origin as a stage play. Everything about the film is exceptionally tasteful, from the toned-down Technicolor to the unobtrusive score and naturalistic editing.

At least, it doesn’t feel like he adds much in the way of style, but that might just be a sign of Seasons’ influence. When the film came out, Variety praised Zinnemann  in no uncertain terms, saying that he “establishes mood and contrast in brief shots – placid, then turbulent waters, bustling minions – which are heightened further by versatile use of Technicolor, toned to the dramatic needs of the moment.” They go on to praise the editing, the pacing, the camerawork — and they’re not alone, as both Time and The New York Times go out of their way to praise the director. Even if that’s the case, though, and Season only feels flat because its production design has become the template for middlebrow costume dramas, it doesn’t change the fact that it feels flat. Unlike other films that have gone on to become broad templates, it doesn’t seem significantly above its progeny in that respect.

Still, the direction doesn’t take away from the fine performances, the intelligent script or the inherent drama of the material. There’s only one scene where a directorial choice really rubbed me the wrong way — and, unfortunately, it was the last scene, which left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. After an exceptional courtroom scene where More outmaneuvers his adversaries only to be sentenced to death thanks to the perjured testimony of a former friend, the film moves to the execution itself. More maintains himself with his usual dignity, telling the axe-man not to feel guilt about what he’s doing. The axe swings. Cut to black. Perfect. But instead of credits, Zinneman inserts some expository narration about the eventual fates of the characters involved. It’s as heavy-handed as an episode of Dragnet, completely killing what would otherwise have been an exceptionally effective ending.

I’m sure some will find Seasons dry, but I still enjoyed it. A good many of the philosophical issues up for discussion in the film are still incredibly timely, and even if I don’t agree with some of More’s positions — i.e. the absolute authority of the Holy See and the rightness of burning Lutherans — it’s hard to watch a scene like the one below where he extols the value of the rule of law and not feel at least a little inspired.

Coming up:
1967: In the Heat of the Night
1968: Oliver!
1969: Midnight Cowboy

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