The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is not a likely place to look for saints.
The venue was, for eight years in the 1960s, the home base of the Academy Awards, which then — as now — declined to make a practice of honoring films that took as their subjects spiritual matters or religious figures. To read a rundown of Best Picture recipients is to confirm this impression. Yes, there is Leo McCarey’s lovely Going My Way (1944), with Bing Crosby starring as a priest, not to mention William Wyler’s ponderous Biblical epic Ben-Hur (1959). A case could be made, perhaps, for the sense of the eternal present in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), but what else?
This, despite the fact that more than a few great films of Hollywood’s Golden Age acknowledged the divine. A number even focused on churchmen or -women, real or fictitious. For example, Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950) touchingly depicted a parson (Joel McCrea) who promoted good with grit and prayer, while Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) was a vivid adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play, bolstered by the genuinely transcendent presence of actress Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc. Alas, the Academy ignored both.
Yet, in the spring of 1967, the makers of perhaps the greatest of all religious films trekked, one by one, to the stage of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. That year, Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons — an adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play concerning Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), an English lawyer and lord chancellor who cast his lot with the Catholic Church over King Henry VIII when it came to the latter’s remarriage — netted six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Zinnemann), and Best Actor (for Paul Scofield, who played More).
The incongruity of the evening — the sight of a film considering a Catholic saint being lavishly honored in the relatively impious environs of Southern California — seems not to have been lost on at least one in attendance. That night, it fell to Audrey Hepburn — who, coincidentally, starred in Zinnemann’s daring, equivocal film about a nun who forswears her holy vows, The Nun’s Story (1959) — to recite the nominees for Best Picture, most of which sounded like more plausible winners than A Man for All Seasons. Would the Academy fête the lugubrious war drama The Sand Pebbles or the predictably liberal Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming? Perhaps New Hollywood artiness, courtesy of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Alfie, would carry the day? Yet A Man for All Seasons was the pick — and, in a thoroughly charming moment, after opening the envelope, Hepburn paused and leaned her head heavenward. “The winner is,” she said, before raising the pitch of her voice, “A Man for All Seasons!” Her tone and manner suggested that she could not quite believe that truth and beauty had won out.
This year, A Man for All Seasons turns 50, and its triumph is still a little hard to fathom. This is, after all, a work that ends with its protagonist’s execution and that further submits that this outcome is evidence of his virtue. In Bolt’s telling, More resolves that he cannot condone Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) in his replacement of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, with Anne Boleyn (a cameo by Vanessa Redgrave) via annulment, absent approval by the pope. Instead of actively protesting the chicanery necessary to bring Henry and Anne together — including devising the Church of England — More vacates his job of lord chancellor and observes an ethic of quietude about the matter. More’s mute state only incites the king and his courtiers, who are convinced that the man’s heart and mind can be won through time in the Tower of London and the specter of death. Yet the Crown misjudges More, who tolerates the abuse meted out to him and refuses to flip-flop.
As shown in the film, More occasionally resembles a feature of the earth — like a rock or a river, constant and unchanging — rather than a mere mortal riven with anxieties. In fact, Zinnemann — who, as the maker of High Noon and The Member of the Wedding (both 1952) and especially The Nun’s Story, had already proven himself a top-notch craftsman — makes the comparison explicit by threading such imagery through the film. During the opening titles, as a message from Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) travels to More by boat, Zinnemann focuses on the dark currents below and the scattering ducks above. This sublime visual metaphor implies that elements of nature, such as water and animals, will persist after the conflicts of a particular era — such as those that exercise More and Henry — have evaporated.
Its earlier incarnation on stage notwithstanding, A Man for All Seasons unfolds for large sections outdoors; cinematographer Ted Moore was also an Oscar recipient for the film. Consider, for example, an early scene in which More dumps a silver chalice given to him as an attempted bribe into a river. Or a later scene in which a boat transporting Henry — seeking to prevail on More to throw his weight behind the annulment — reaches the home occupied by More and his wife, Alice (Wendy Hiller); in a fine illustration of his regal impetuousness, the king leaps out of his vessel and spends a moment romping on the muddy shore.
Of course, much of the film’s power comes from Bolt’s Tony- and Oscar-winning words. There are, of course, the famous lines — such as More’s pitying putdown of Richard Rich (John Hurt), whose betrayal of More results in a post as attorney general for Wales (“Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, but for Wales?”) — but many others less well known. After More and Henry quarrel about the Catherine–Anne predicament, Alice — having eavesdropped — baldly summarizes the situation to her spouse: “You crossed him.” It’s a sharp, frightening line. Then, in a snippet of dialogue indicative of his inability to prioritize politics over ethics, More answers: “I couldn’t find the other way.” Here, and throughout the film, Scofield lends More a certain sad self-consciousness, as if the character knows that he is intractable but slightly regrets the fact. Scofield’s More mixes certitude with humility. When it still seems plausible he might be right, More calms Alice’s fears by saying offhandedly yet firmly of himself: “Set your mind at rest: This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.” The line suggests More’s innocence of his own significance.
In a 1982 BBC interview, Orson Welles — who, as Cardinal Wolsey, resembles the round object referred to in the title of the classic children’s film The Red Balloon — said that he considered Shakespeare’s Falstaff, around whom he built his great film Chimes at Midnight (1965), to be “the most unusual figure in fiction,” for being “almost entirely a good man.” This is a debatable opinion — what of such altogether admirable figures as Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust or Daisy Miller in Henry James’s short novel of that title? — but surely A Man for All Seasons answers it definitively. The bashful righteousness of Bolt’s Thomas More bests the lotus-eating laziness of Falstaff any day of the week.
One of the peculiar joys of the film is to witness a family accept its plight as More’s prospects dim. In one remarkable scene, More’s daughter, Margaret (a spirited Susannah York, just three years removed from Tom Jones), cavorts merrily in the increasingly lonely, empty rooms of their residence. She states the facts with a smile: “We’ve been cutting greens — we use them for fuel.” Not that the film gives short shrift to the burdens inflicted after More declines to back Henry and Anne’s matrimony. Her husband wasting away in the Tower of London, Alice expresses bafflement over More’s recalcitrance, though she doesn’t hesitate in proclaiming: “You’re the best man I’ve ever met or ever likely to.” Perhaps the most cinematically potent passage occurs when More, through a narrow window in his quarters in the Tower of London, spots children playing beside a tree on a sunny day; the film then dissolves to shots of the same scene as one season turns to another. Is there a film that better depicts a prisoner’s sense of the world chugging along in his absence?
How easy it would have been to color More’s defiance with doubt or to make Henry’s worldliness somehow sympathetic. Zinnemann resists both temptations, instead hewing to history to render judgment on two men. At the very end, More restates the meaning behind his death: “I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” As the screen dims, a narrator describes the events to follow, including additional executions and further shifts in power, as well as — pointedly — Henry’s demise owing to syphilis.
A film commending integrity and decrying sinfulness taking home a slew of Oscars? You can just imagine Audrey Hepburn’s surprise.
– Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of the book Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.