How can I have reached middle age without having seen A Man for All Seasons until now?
Not only is it a great film (it won six Academy Awards) but the film’s hero, the 16th-century Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, is a small twig on my family tree: one of my ancestors married his sister.
Like me (please, just humour me) the film has a fine pedigree. Director Fred Zinnemann also has High Noon and Day of the Jackal on his CV, while screenwriter Robert Bolt, who adapted it from his own play, also wrote both Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia.
This is probably why it attracted such actors as Leo McKern, Susannah York, Dame Wendy Hiller, a couple of Redgraves, a possibly-sober Orson Welles and a young John Hurt in his first major role.
More is played by Paul Schofield, no stranger to taking strong character roles, and it is More’s moral fibre that anchors the story, as he refuses to give in to the king, but places himself primarily under God’s rule.
The film covers More’s final years, when he refused to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and refused to take an Oath of Supremacy declaring the king Supreme Head of the Church of England. More takes the consequences bravely.
Those who watched the much-lauded Wolf Hall, will be familiar with the events, although, seeing things from the viewpoint of Sir Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall swaps the hero and villain roles.
While this is the core story (one that More ironically tells his wife, “is not the stuff of which martyrs are made”) the extras show just how much more there was to More than a refusal on the grounds of principle. Famously, the writer of Utopia and also a councillor to the young Henry VIII, he was highly educated, a social philosopher and a creative thinker. Catholics now venerate him as a saint.
As this is part of Eureka’s excellent ‘Masters of Cinema’ series, the film gets the full technical treatment: dual format DVD/Blu-ray; a 4K digital restoration; and optional surround sound presentation.
It also offers all the background you need to fully appreciate the film. As well as the obligatory cinema trailer and generous 32-page liner essay, the extras include a 15-minute history of Sir Thomas More, a 35-minute background from film scholar Neil Sinyard; and a dialogue commentary by two film historians that is rich as a gourmet Christmas pudding.
These give many key insights to enjoying the film, whether it is Zinnemann’s appreciation of Europe as a hostile place (his Jewish parents died in the Holocaust); his (partly consequent) track record of morally strong characters standing as individuals against a corrupt society; and directorial accents (“He doesn’t emphasize the hero; he emphasizes the cost”).
If you’re going to see a historical drama, this is the way to watch it.
And while you’re doing so, please spare a thought for families like mine, who were once highly influential in the royal court, but lost wealth and prominence generation by generation until, now (if you can hear me saying this over the sound of sobbing) … we’re nobodies.