A Man For All Seasons (1966)

The extended award season, finally receding into the future haze of “What won for best song in 2023?”*, always tends to pique me: What is great? From school, you’d get the idea that “great” is what a professor dozens or hundreds of years later thinks about your work. And however vile academics are today (and however mediocre they’ve historically been), we have both Shakespeare and Bach today because some academic recovered them from fickle pop culture. If someone can dig up your work hundreds of years later and people can still embrace the aesthetic, that’s a measure of greatness.

However, I do think there’s great “in the moment”. Tons of, e.g., ’80s culture was the right mood (as the kids say) for the time. This is true of every era, of course, and what’s remarkable about the ’80s is that a lot of the stuff dismissed as ephemera at the time still holds up today—in contrast to the late ’60s/early ’70s, which was absolutely convinced of its own immortality and is the very definition of “cringe” today.

From a narrative standpoint, however, a great story (by my lights) is the one that tells the tale that truly is eternal which brings us to A Man For All Seasons, 1966’s Best Picture Oscar winner.

Jordan Petersen, the early years.

The Flower (a recent convert to Catholicism) had been wanting to watch this for some time, and we finally did. It is as great as I remembered it being, but it also maps perfectly on to the recent struggle against the lockdowns, the whole red vs. blue pill, and the dangers of going against The Cathedral (in a practically literal sense). It is odd to see a movie you know well and love and yet be shocked into wanting to check the copyright to see if it was actually made yesterday.

Of course, it couldn’t have been made yesterday now, could it? (Maybe during the Trump administration, so they could metaphorically make him the villain, like they did with Bush and The Lives of Others.)

Directed by Fred Zinneman (High Noon, From Here To Eternity, Oklahoma!) who won directing and producing Oscars, based on a play by Robert Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago) who also won an Oscar, this is the story of Sir Thomas More, who stood against King Henry VIII’s decision to split from the Catholic Church in order to secure a divorce—and who expects his adherence to the law to protect him as Henry’s sycophants (and Henry himself) try bullying, cajoling and finally tricking him into breaking the law. Anything to get his agreement, which only seems to be important because he won’t give it.

“You ever looked into the Pope’s eyes? They’re like a doll’s eyes!”

Successful, respected, principled, we seem More lose all his worldly goods, we see his family turned against him (at least insofar as supporting his principles), we see him jailed and finally railroaded with an outright lie in a court of law. And, in a scene that is apparently close to historical truth, we see him executed. (Spoilers on a 500 year old event?)

Here, More is not even expressly going against Henry VIII: He’s simply not going with him, and that is enough to spur the escalating madness. Throughout the movie, More (who is not naive) is increasingly red-pilled, as he realizes if the King wants you dead, you’re dead, law be damned. Throughout, his friends and allies are imploring him to be reasonable, because it’s better than the alternative. (Relevantly, the issue of “right” or “wrong” isn’t really at play here, except in the sense that Henry feels he’s in the wrong, and he can’t feel that he’s the wrong.)

Paul Scofield won the acting Oscar (but he didn’t show because he figured he would lose to Richard Burton, who turned down the More part). Charlton Heston lobbied for the role and appeared in the 1988 version (which I find unwatchable). The cinematography—Technicolor, before they started muddying the colors too badly for “realism”—and costumes are great and also won Oscars. Robert Shaw (Jaws) lost best supporting actor.

Making the staff feel guilty.

A young John Hurt—his first role in a big movie—plays a would-be toady to More. Leo McKern, Wendy Hiller, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave (who would go on to star in the Heston version), and Susannah York round out the cast.

Historical realism? It probably ends with the costumes (and the execution scene). More’s actual track record was not one of tolerance, with any number from three to eight heretics being burned at the stake during his reign as chancellor, according to modern historians. At the same time, revisionism is so endemic, I wouldn’t believe George Washington didn’t cut down the cherry tree if I weren’t his alibi for the night.

But realism is not the point: Bolt’s More is aspirational. He is what we should all be. Principled and willing to work within the system to the extent that it doesn’t compromise his principles.

If Bolt had specific events in mind, it also doesn’t matter, because it works so well today. (Contrast with Spartacus where Dalton Trumbo shoehorns his anti-McCarthy speech into the mouths of literal slavers.) It’s the universality of this premise which is great: We will always be impressed on to conform and to compromise even our most fundamental beliefs, it seems like. With More we have a role model.

*“Naatu Naatu” from RRR.

Orson Welles, 1958, needs a fat suit for “A Touch of Evil”. Orson Welles, 1966…pure Welles.

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