Finding a movie that explores and celebrates the power of human reason is difficult.
Movies, after all, tell stories, and stories by their very nature require action. For every movie in which a hero conquers his problems by means of reason and deliberation, we can think of a thousand in which the protagonist is an action hero—a thinking hero, yes, but nonetheless a person who defeats the bad guys with both brains and brawn.
Yet one film does give its viewers insights into a man struggling with his conscience while trying his best to reason his way out of the traps prepared by his adversaries. Playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” tells the story of Sir Thomas More’s struggles to preserve his faith and his life against King Henry VIII’s demands for loyalty and submission.
More (Paul Scofield), who is a leading European intellectual, the author of “Utopia,” a personal friend of King Henry, and once his Lord Chancellor, finds himself in deep trouble when Henry wishes to divorce his barren queen, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his lover, the beautiful Anne Boleyn. When the pope refuses to annul the marriage to Catherine, Henry severs his ties with Rome, establishes himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and commands his subjects to recognize the legitimacy of his union with Anne.
And here More draws a line in the sand.
Looking to the Law
In the film, as in life, More’s friends and family counsel him and eventually beg him to concede Henry’s position and approve his marriage. Sir Thomas, however, finds himself torn between his Catholic faith, which has condemned the divorce, and his fealty to the king. Surrounded as well by political enemies eager to break him, he seeks refuge and sustenance from these battles in the bastion of wit, reason, and law. Here, he discusses his dilemma with his son-in-law, William Roper (Corin Redgrave):
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my safety’s sake!
In the Tangle of the Mind
Having cut his ties with Rome, Henry decrees that his subjects must take an oath of loyalty to him as king and as head of the English Church. In a conversation with Margaret (Susannah York), his beloved daughter and a learned scholar in her own right—the Dutch philosopher and theologian Erasmus, a family friend, dubbed her “the flower of all the learned matrons of England”—More lays out his response to the king’s declaration:
Sir Thomas More: Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.
And More proceeds to do just as he says, to try and find some legal or ethical way out of the deadly fix in which he finds himself.
Yet each day brings more demands and pressures from the king and his minions. Soon Sir Thomas realizes that he is trapped: His conscience will not allow him to acquiesce and recognize the king’s actions as legitimate, and there is no escaping the consequences. After he is arrested, imprisoned, and comes to trial, a kangaroo court convicts him of treason.
When asked “Have you anything to say?” More replies: “I am the king’s true subject, and I pray for him and all the realm. I do none harm. I say none harm. I think none harm. And if this is not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith I long not to live.”
That wish is granted. Thomas More is found guilty of treason and beheaded, an act that makes him a martyr in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Eventually, that same Church will declare him a saint.
The Spine to Stand Alone
Few other movies so winningly present the case for logic, thought, and conviction as weapons against an opponent. More does not try to raise an army, lead a rebellion, escape his enemies, or evade the issue. Instead, he uses his mind like a rapier, parrying and warding off blow after blow until he is at last cornered and defeated.
Each one who confronts him about his decisions—Margaret, his wife Alice, the Duke of Norfolk, William Roper, his enemies Thomas Cromwell and Richard Rich—reveals another side of More, illuminating his powers of reason and persuasion. Here, for instance, More is discussing his situation with his friend, the Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport). The duke, a bluff, hard-nosed Englishman who prefers action to words, can’t understand why More refuses to join the king and the vast majority of the clergy and nobility who stand with him:
The Duke of Norfolk: Oh, confound all this. I’m not a scholar, I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not, but dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship?
Sir Thomas More: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Bolt took the title for his play and later for the movie from a description of Thomas More written in 1520 by Robert Whittington.
“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. He is a man of many excellent virtues; I know not this fellow. For where is the man (in whom is so many goodly virtues) of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability, and as time requires, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes and sometime of steadfast gravity—a man for all seasons.”
In the film, actor Paul Scofield brilliantly gives us this man. As More, Scofield goes from piety to laughter in a heartbeat, is tough as nails on himself while showing gentleness and compassion for his grief-stricken wife and daughter. The character also demands wit in the worst of circumstances, as when More discovers during his trial that Richard Rich (John Hurt), a former protégé, has betrayed him in order to become the attorney general for Wales. “For Wales?” More says. “Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world … But for Wales?”
In another scene depicting human frailty, More’s jailor hustles his visitors–Margaret, Alice, and William—from his cell and then tells More: “You must understand my position, sir. I’m just a plain simple man. I just want to keep out of trouble.”
That excuse and Richard Rich’s lust for power, wealth, and pleasure have echoed throughout the corridors of history. They are as old as the Bible and as new as yesterday’s headlines.
“A Man for all Seasons” gives us a man, a hero in spirit and intellect, who died steadfast in his defense of the law, honor, truth, and his God. He refused to take the easy path and paid for that decision with his life.
We shall always need men and women like Robert Bolt’s Sir Thomas More, human beings who can see the long haul of history as well as the short race of current trends and events, who have a firm grasp of right and wrong, and who refuse to join with others in a bad cause for the sake of fellowship or to sell their souls for earthly honors.