Producer-director Fred Zinnemann has blended all filmmaking elements into an excellent, handsome and stirring film version of “A Man For All Seasons.” Robert Bolt adapted his 1960 play, a timeless, personal conflict based on the 16th century politico-religious situation between adulterous King Henry VIII and Catholic Sir Thomas More. Latter is played by Paul Scofield who created the legit role in London, later N.Y. William N. Graf is exec producer, utilizing Britain’s Shepperton Studios and environs. Primary market is the class audience, with Columbia gearing its roadshow sell accordingly. Subsequent general playoff may be spotty.
Basic dramatic situation is that of a minister of the crown and his conscience being challenged by the imperious point of view which maintains that the lack of explicit support to an erring King is equivalent to disloyalty. This is the usual human dilemma whenever expediency confronts integrity. Bolt has adapted his legiter in a way that retains the illumination of diverse human natures, each in different degrees of honest and dishonest support and conflict. The Common Man character, a solo Greek chorus stage device, has been eliminated, properly, in the screen treatment.
Scofield, in his first major film role, delivers an excellent performance as More, respected barrister, judge and Chancellor who combined an urbane polish with inner mysticism. Faced with mounting pressure to endorse publicly the royal marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, but armed with legalistic know-how, More outfoxed his adversaries until “perjury” was used to justify a sentence of death. Scofield interprets in top fashion the interwoven loyalties of More to himself, his family, nation and religion.
Robert Shaw is also excellent as the king, giving full exposition in limited footage to the character: volatile, educated, virile, arrogant, yet sensible (and sensible) enough to put the squeeze on More via subordinates, mainly Thomas Cromwell, played by Leo McKern. Latter’s characterization, restrained and chilling at first, unfortunately becomes too broad, almost that of a jolly rascal, effect being to flaw the dramatic impact at times.
John Hurt registers strongly as the ambitious young man whose loyalties and integrity are overcome by material desires, furnished by McKern. The final battle, in which ambition crushes integrity, rages in Hurt’s eyes, face and dialog. In contrast is Nigel Davenport, equally strong as the Duke of Norfolk, but a man who switches loyalties with few moral pangs. Both characters are prominent in More’s final betrayal.
Wendy Hiller is brusque, but warm, as More’s stolid wife, while Susannah York balances properly the youthful air of knowing innocence inherent in the daughter, always closer to her father. Corin Redgrave, of the theatrical family, is her suitor, headstrong and zealous as only an immature idealist can be, and he plays it well.
Orson Welles in five minutes (here an early confrontation, as Cardinal Wolsey, with More), achieves outstanding economy of expression. Colin Blakely is good as More’s servant who makes the facile adjustment to prevailing winds, instinctive to lower classes.
With the single exception noted above, Zinnemann’s direction of his players seems uniformly excellent. In addition, he establishes mood and contrast in brief shots – placid, then turbulent waters, bustling minions – which are heightened further by versatile use of Technicolor, toned to the dramatic needs of the moment. John Box did the outstanding production design, and Ted Moore’s sensitive camera has caught all the nuances, including Zinnemann’s international blanking of some frames to focus attention.
Zinnemann’s overall pacing, as executed by editor Ralph Kemplin to a good 120 minutes, eliminates depiction of some obvious events, thereby creating a desired abruptness. While at other times it lingers appropriately over key personal interactions. Georges Delerue has provided a spare but effective score which complements the cinematics.
Other technical credits, including Terry Marsh’s art direction and costumes by Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge, are excellent. There appears to be a minor technical flaw in the first reel, as trade-shown, where ambient noise levels vary with individual speeches.