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A Man for All Seasons (1966): A Movie Review

Updated on May 9, 2019
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


This is a film I borrowed for free from my local public library.

I knew nothing about it. I selected it at random as I was browsing the shelves. It so happens that this is a very strong film. I'm going to give it a nine out of ten.

As I said in the summary line, this film takes us back to the England of King Henry VIII. The matter involves Protestantism versus Catholicism. Many of the population were turning to the new Protestant faith, persuaded by the arguments of Martin Luther. Henry VIII wanted to break with the Roman Church because the institution would not legitimate his breaking of one marriage, so that he could marry another in his quest, among other things, to sire a son and royal successor.

Though he was the king and certainly the most powerful single person in the kingdom, Henry's power was not absolute. With everything that he did, he had to at least appear to be operating within the framework the law and institutional legitimacy, as marketed to the public.

Key to a successful marketing campaign is the moral and legal acquiescence if not the agreement and outright alliance of Sir Thomas More, perhaps the most respected statesman in all the land.

Basically, if More gives the okay sign with regard to the Henry's annulment of one marriage and remarriage to another, a Miss Anne Boleyn --- the public will shrug their shoulders and go back to tending their micro-plots of land.

A Bit of a Detour

Let me take a bit of a detour, so that I can say that one reason that "A Man for All Seasons" is a good film is because it is well-titled.

What I mean by that is this: The film is a package of scenes that is well described by the title given to it. That is to say, "A Man for All Seasons" truly captures the essence of what the film is about.

Does that make sense?

On the other side of things, it is almost invariably a feature of bad-to-mediocre films that their titles do nothing to capture the essence of what goes on in those movies. Indeed, the question presents itself with these films: Is there any essence to capture?

For me, Pineapple Express (2008) starring Seth Rogan and James Franco, epitomizes this latter tendency. It is, in my opinion, an un-offensive yet bland package of scenes.

"Pineapple Express" is almost meaningless to the film. The term happens to be what is used for one of the most potent forms of marijuana. Now, I'm not saying that the term plays no role in the film, however it is a fleeting, tangential one.

With that aside, as I viewed that film, and think about it today, it is hard to come up with anything to call that movie --- which, in itself, suggests the lack of a concrete core to the film, the lack of a central concept to hold on to. A bunch of stuff happens.

Returning to Our Film

I do not want to give away too much of what happens in the movie; I am anxious for you --- whoever 'you' may be --- to discover that for yourself, as you watch the film.

Just know that Sir Thomas More, the British statesman, is the titular Man for All Seasons. I don't want to spoil anything by going into just precisely what that means. I will say that, in its way, this film is an intriguing legal drama. Sir Thomas More (as played by Mr. Paul Scofield) finds himself arguing for his very life, desperately trying to stay on the safe side of the letter of the law.

That "letter of the law" business is the key to the man, Thomas More, in this movie. He is a religious conservative (in that he remains a stalwart Catholic, in the face of seemingly nationwide switch to Protestantism. Also, one gets the idea that he has managed for a long time, --- due to his fantastic logical, legal, and verbal skill --- to keep out of trouble because he has been able to couch his sentiments in a way that satisfies the letter of the law (if not its spirit).

You see, it is his skill at defensive legal literalism that has kept him out of the gallows, even though he believes in his heart that King Henry's annulment of one marriage and remarriage to another is not valid in any way, not legally, morally, or religiously.

Anyway, Robert Shaw (King Henry VIII) puts on a fantastic performance in the one and only scene of the film that he appears. However, that is all that is needed from Henry.

Henry visits More at the latter's country home. In this scene we see Henry trying to bend More to his will (approve of the King's annulment and remarriage) through a combination flattery, cajoling, shouting, and even a touch of menace, which falls just short of a threat.

Henry plays those notes (the changing moods) like a musician playing an instrument that he had long ago mastered.

What is important about that scene is not the fact that More remained unmoved, while remaining polite, friendly, almost brotherly, and suitably deferential --- while, somehow, managing to refuse his King without actually saying, or provably uttering the sentiment of "NO."

What is important about that scene is that one gets a good idea about the nature of the government Henry presided over --- and the disposition the government shaped itself in reaction to the will of the ruler.

The government, as a whole, would also pursue More, though a combination of cajoling, shouting, flattery, and threats.

A Quick Side Note

I don't usually watch so-called "biopics": dramatic movies about historical figures.

I tend to find such films boring. I would almost invariably prefer to watch the documentary. If this film had been about the "life of" Henry or Thomas More, or whomever, I do not think that I could have endured it.

I am going to make this bold statement: Nobody's life is cinematic!

Many people lead, and have led, interesting lives, of course. But remember why we go to the movies. Remember just what it is that we are seeking from a movie (especially a theatrical release film), regardless of the genre.

What we want to see is a protagonist trying to achieve a specific, well-defined objective. We want to see him overcome interesting and challenging en route.

There is nobody, for whom the total sweep of their lives, can be made to fit this formula. In other words, there is no way to impose cinematic objective, challenge, success (or failure) upon anyone's life story.

The reason for this is that nobody lives their lives with cinematic purpose. There are moments, episodes, certain periods of our lives which may be the stuff of cinema, because in them, we have objective, challenge, and ultimate success or failure. And these episodes might stretch us to the limit and beyond of our powers.

Such was the case with Sir Thomas More in this film.

Thank you for reading!


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