Video Review: A Man for All Seasons-A Sermon on Integrity
by Jonathan S. Walker
Roper: So, now you give the devil himself the benefit of law?
More: Yes, what would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get at the devil?
Roper: Yes! I’d cut down every law in England to do that.
More: Oh? And when the last law was down and the devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide…the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws coast to coast, man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down, …do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I would give the devil the benefit of law for my own safety.
I must admit, I never tire of A Man for All Seasons. I was first introduced to it as a child. It was a film that my parents watched perennially. I still remember my father rummaging through the videos for the taped-off-television version. The film seemed to call to him out of the night. I would ask him why that film, why now. He would simply say that this is a film worth seeing once a year. I have also heard him call it “A Noble Film.”
I didn’t fully appreciate it the first time I saw it. At the time, I remember respecting the fact that my parents enjoyed it so religiously (if I can use that word), but it’s a slow movie for children because the ideas are just beyond their reach. However, I am thankful to my parents for exposing me to films like this.
A Man for All Seasons is based on the conflict between Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) and King Henry VIII of England (Robert Shaw). Henry has not produced an heir to the throne and resolves to divorce his wife, Catherine. The Pope in Rome is loathe to permit it, but Henry will have his way. Thomas More resigns his position as Chancellor and refuses to support this effort to flout the authority of his Catholic faith. Thus, the “needs” of the state are pitted against the conscience of this single man.
Fred Zinnemann (the director) built for himself a reputation for two characteristics, both of which show themselves in the best light in Man. He established himself as a director of the realistic perspective. This is so often mentioned in conjunction with Zinnemann because of his staunch adherence to the integrity of a time and place. While watching Man you won’t see pompadours or bell-bottoms slipping its way into this 15th Century story. You won’t find a glamorization of the place. People get dirty, places get old, and people age through hardship.
The second thing for which Zinnemann gained a reputation was telling stories involving personal moral challenges, usually at variance with the world. I’ll give you two examples of this, one you’re probably familiar with and the other you’re probably not. Zinnemann made High Noon at the height of McCarthyism in the fifties and the protagonist attempts to find anyone who will take a stand against tyranny. In the end, his own safety is of minor importance compared to doing his duty. In A Nun’s Story, Zinnemann directed Katherine Hepburn in a film about a nun who struggles with her desire to offer humanitarian service that is opposed by her Catholic order.
Some have complained that Zinnemann forces the moral issues on his audience, that he succumbs to sentimentality. With the benefit of time, we can see that Zinnemann’s controlled and subtle directing style allows for the import of the story take center stage. Far from being a problem, it’s refreshing that he willingly takes righteous characters and shows us through their struggles what depths goodness can reach. A Man for All Seasons does just that.
Man is a sermon on integrity. The trials that come to Thomas More come only because of his singular personal honesty in the face of great temptation to abandon his integrity. A person can be honest by accident (simply by not having the opportunity to deceive), but integrity can only be earned in direct odds with the world. The trial of one’s integrity, while tested in the world, only convenes in the personal conscience.
For Thomas More, integrity is at once personal and at the same time public. While most men see Henry’s plight as mere politics, More sees added significance in it. At the film’s beginning Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) insists that More forsake his personal belief for the good of the kingdom. More responds bluntly. “I think when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country on a short route to chaos.”
More’s words do not stand alone to illustrate what integrity should mean. The actions of the man–the extent to which he holds to his ideals–empower his words. And in contrast, men and women surround More illustrating the varying degrees of integrity: from men of opportunity like Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) to men who fall easily to temptation like Richard Rich (John Hurt). William Roper (Corin Redgrave), his son in law, sees it all as politics and wavers from one moral position to another in defense of his political agenda. Henry VIII, with much intellectual finesse, defends his new positions with moral arguments. And the list goes on. Every character in the film seems to comment on or contrast with More.
Interestingly, A Man for All Season goes against many current theories of filmmaking. It is believed that when defining a character, one must include faults and shades of imperfection so that the audience will be able to identify with the character. Perfect people are dramatically boring, if not completely unrealistic. More does not seem to have those faults and yet we have very little trouble understanding him. Sometimes the best heros are the ones that we can wholeheartedly support.
Robert Bolt, who wrote the play and then latter the screenplay, may also be lauded for his screenplays of Lawrence of Arabia and The Mission. He has a flare for balancing the eventful with the personal in fleshing out character. His college training as a historian helped him include highly accurate dialogue and situations, but his feel for the dramatic helps him exclude unnecessary details. Bolt clearly hones his story so that the dramatic theme stands salient.
A film so rich in thought, moral fiber, and emotion seldom becomes tiresome. Watching it inspires us to be better people. A Man for All Seasons is not just a film to be enjoyed, it’s a film that can teach us something: integrity does matter.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.