Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Man for All Seasons

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Even if you do not subscribe to any established religious faiths, the issues raised by religion are essential to human nature. And religion's impact on history has been immense. One might think that a story set during Henry VIII's time about a conflict between the King and the Chancellor of England over the Catholic prohibition concerning a divorce would not speak to us today. But, that's not what this intelligent film by director Fred Zinnemann is really about. Its focus is on honor, integrity, and the courage to adhere to one's convictions no matter what the consequences.

Henry the VIII, played by a larger than life Robert Shaw, appoints Sir Thomas More, a lawyer and magistrate, as Chancellor to make him beholden to him in his battle with the Catholic Church. Sound familiar? The same situation is depicted in the film Becket, which has similar themes, and which I will discuss in another entry. Henry was given approval by the Pope to marry his brother's widow (considered by many as incest). He then wants to divorce her, saying that he shouldn't have been allowed to marry her in the first place. He now wants to marry Anne Boleyn (a wordless Vanessa Redgrave). Although I do not agree with the positions of the main characters in Becket and this film, I still find myself admiring them because the kings they oppose are not arguing an opposing ideology, but instead are only interested in fulfilling their own desires.  

Shaw's loudness is offset by the quiet strength of Paul Scofield's Oscar winning performance as More. Thomas tries to walk a moral tightrope as he tries to not open himself up as a traitor to the crown and at the same time keep his allegiance to the Pope.  So his fate hinges on what he says and especially on what he does not say. Words are very important in this story, and More's brilliance shines as he plays this legal cat and mouse game. The King, in order to get what he wants, breaks with Rome, and establishes the Church of England, with himself as its head. Those who oppose him on this action are considered traitors. Thomas resigns as Chancellor when he sees he cannot openly support the King, who requires his followers to sign a loyalty oath, which More will not do. And so he is brought to the Tower of London. But, he is very careful not to ever say that he opposes the King, not even to his wife, played by Wendy Hiller. It is ironic that he tells her at one point that he does not consist of the stuff of which martyrs are made. It is Richard Rich (John Hurt) who betrays him, perjuring himself by saying that More told him that the King through Parliament could not undermine the Pope's authority.

More is a complicated character. He is a devout Catholic, believing in the Pope's authority handed down from Jesus to St. Peter and his successors. He refuses to have his daughter (Susannah York) marry Will Roper (Corin Redgrave) until he renounces support for Martin Luther and thus stops being a heretic. But, he believes in the laws of man, too. He tells Will that he would give the Devil himself benefit of the law for his (More's) own safety's sake, stating that for the law to be effective, it must be applied universally. What More objects to in Roper, and especially with Henry, is that they have no codes to live by, no core belief systems, and that they change the rules on a whim to suit themselves. More says to Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) that when a man in office ignores his own morality, he leads his country to chaos.

The motifs in the film enhance its themes. There is a great deal of going back and forth by boat between the seat of government and Thomas' home. This fact comes to symbolize the ethical distance between the King and the affairs of state and More's religious morality. At one point, because he is now considered out of favor with the King, the water taxi boatmen will not shuttle Thomas, and he must find his own way home, which emphasizes the loneliness of the person taking a moral stand against those in power.

When the King visits Thomas, he jumps from his boat into the mud. He laughs and, following his example, his followers all jump into the mud. The mud symbolizes the moral muck in which the King and his followers now reside. Henry's filthy mind is seen in how he lusts after Thomas' daughter, but turns away from her when she exhibits the beauty of her mind with her fluent Latin. Ironically, the man of no morals seeks the approval of the man of truthfulness to legitimize his selfish, lustful ways. Rich is tempted by Cromwell (Leo McKern) to inform on More, and when Rich falls backward into the mud after he is offered a post for his collaboration, you know that he, too, now wallows in corruption. 

Thomas tells Rich that he cannot employ him at Court or recommend him for a job in public office because he knows he will accept bribes. Thomas asks him what he would do with the money from a bribe. Rich says he would buy proper clothes. As we see Rich become more involved with Cromwell in the conspiracy against More, Rich's wardrobe becomes more expensive and elaborate. His exterior increases in adornment as his soul declines in worth. 

At the end of the film we are told that Cromwell, like any henchman whose mission in life is doing the dirty work their superiors delegate to them, was executed at the end of his usefulness. Henry died, appropriately, of syphilis. Rich, however, became Chancellor of England, and died in his bed. In this world, alas, the bad are not always punished. Thomas, whose moral constancy made him a man for all seasons, says at his execution that he was "the King's good servant, but God's first."

Does this film make a good argument about the need for the separation between church and government? What do you think?

Next week's film is Ordinary People.

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