One of the curious things about history is that it keeps changing. Of course it does. Otherwise historians would have nothing to do all day and no-one wants that. Arguing about the minutiae and interpretation of historical texts is why history is such fun (oh yes it is). But it’s not just for academics. Popular history is in a surprising state of flux too. Richard III has a whole society dedicated to his historical rehabilitation. And we’ve all read (or seen) Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in which Thomas Cromwell is the pragmatic hero trying to navigate the country through a particularly tricky patch, while being hampered by the fanaticism of that difficult Thomas More. But these historical actors haven’t always been thought of in that way. In fact, until Mantel came along, the popular view was that portrayed in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons, made into an Academy Award showered movie in 1966, in which More is the hero and Cromwell a villain.
If you don’t know the story, then your old history master will most upset but here goes. Henry VIII’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon has failed to produce a male heir and that means all sorts of dynastic problems are looming. Henry decides to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn which is far from straightforward if you happen to be a 16th century catholic king. It means trying to get the Pope to agree and, when he doesn’t, splitting from Rome and becoming head of your own church. In either case, you’ll need the support of Parliament including your Chancellor, Thomas More. Unfortunately, More is a “man of principle” (in this version) so he’s going to ignore Henry and, as we all know, that never ends well.
Be prepared, this is a movie about an argument. A very long argument. You might be a bit turned off by that but don’t be because it’s a fantastically tight script with some superb performances. Never has a quarrel been so compelling. Robert Shaw gives us one of the screen’s best Henrys. He’s a big kid who wants everyone to like him. He genuinely craves More’s approval but he also treats his dynastic responsibilities with deadly seriousness. Paul Scofield (a veteran of the stage production) inhabits More; his lawyerly arguments and genuine belief that his soul is at stake preventing him from taking the easy path. Fanatic or principled man? A thin line in those days. And what can we say about Leo McKern? Mark Rylance’s compassionate and pragmatic Cromwell in Wolf Hall might be popular now but McKern’s interpretation has all that pragmatism in a more ruthless form. He’s still inexplicably likeable but that might just be McKern’s smileless charm. Throw in an incredibly young John Hurt as an untrustworthy courtier and Nigel Davenport as the rock-solid Norfolk and you have an unmissable film. Even Orson Welles’ Cardinal Wolsey is strangely compelling.
The only thing wrong with this movie is the extras have terrible hats. Often the way, sadly.
Special Features: The Life of Saint Thomas More featurette / Original Theatrical Trailer / Booklet.
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966) / DIRECTOR: FRED ZINNEMAN / SCREENPLAY: ROBERT BOLT / STARRING: PAUL SCOFIELD, WENDY HILLER, LEO MCKERN, ROBERT SHAW, ORSON WELLES, SUSANNAH YORK, NIGEL DAVENPORT, JOHN HURT / RELEASED: OUT NOW