There’s only one scene in Fred Zinnemann’s A Man For All Seasons that might be properly described as “cinematic.”
It happens early on the first 30 minutes or so when King Henry VIII pays a call to his Lord Chancellor and friend Sir Thomas More. Three magnificent boats rich with the colors and pageantry of royalty sweep down the River Thames towards More’s riverside home, Beaufort House. As the boats collide with the muddy banks, the King jumps into the muck, and stares with incredulity at his spoiled breeches. As his retinue looks on with horror, he throws back his head, laughs, and charges towards Beaufort like a child. Climbing the wall to More’s estate, the camera switches to a low-angle shot haloing his head with the sun. It’s a bold, forceful piece of visual storytelling. And it’s the only one of its kind in the film.
A Man For All Seasons is a film of words, discussions, arguments, and accusations. Based on Robert Bolt’s hit play of the same name, it charts More’s resigned martyrdom in the face of Henry VIII’s tyrannical power grabs for supremacy over the Catholic Church in England. At its center is Paul Scofield’s inimitable performance as More as an enlightened man of principles and integrity in an unenlightened era not known for either. Armed with the devotions of a saint—he would later be canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI—and the mind of a superlative statesman and lawyer, Scofield embodies a man at once cognizant of the world and mankind’s capacity for corruption and foolish enough to believe in its better graces.
Much of the film’s majesty comes from the ingenuity of More’s legal maneuverings and their expression through Bolt’s razor-sharp dialogue. Ted Moore’s cinematography fills the screen with dark, earthy tones which ground the film in the realm of historical reconstruction instead of the opulent phantasmagoria of big-budget period pieces (in fact, some of the night scenes are so dark in Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release of the film that they are hard to make out).
Despite its theatrical inclinations, A Man For All Seasons proved a smash hit, becoming one of the highest grossing films of 1966. Even more astonishing, it would go on to win six Academy Awards including Best Picture, beating out Ernest Lehman’s critical darling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Time has looked back more kindly on Lehman’s film, and one must wonder if it truly deserved its accolades. Many of the Best Picture winners from the ’60s were either harmless historical epics or benign musicals. But A Man For All Seasons fits more closely with the politically charged In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) in its resignation towards the capacity of the righteous to brook the forces of tyranny.
I suspect that the film may be more a product of its time than many give it credit for. As such, it is invaluable.
A Man for All Seasons is currently available on a limited edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time. Features include an isolated score track, audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, and the original theatrical trailer: