One of the most talked-about films in 1966 was Fred Zinnemann's "A Man for All Seasons," based on Robert Bolt's smashing stage play about the battle of wills between Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), the Roman Catholic Chancellor, and Henry VIII (Robert Shaw), who broke with the Vatican and established the Church of England with himself as its head.
Appointed to succeed Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) as Lord Chancellor, More has to contend with Henry VIII, who wants to divorce his sterile wife and take a new bride so that he can have a male heir.
However, for both political and spiritual reasons, Rome would not grant and annulment, and Henry decides to break with the Pope, declaring himself the leader of the new Church of England. When he demands More's endorsement of his act, he causes a crisis: More is torn between loyalty to his king and concern with the integrity of his soul. A lawyer, More first hopes to survive through ethical conduct, but Henry's rage and the manipulative machinations of Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) force his hand.
With the encouragement of Zinnemann, who also functioned as producer, Bolt simplified his stage play and accentuated the differences between the characters, elevating More to the level of a noble saint, and undercutting the humor and dramatic wit that his play possessed.
Like most of Zinnemann's films, "Man for All Seasons" is a "prestige" production, dealing with "important" issues in a middlebrow manner that was suitable to mainstream moviegoers and the Academy voters.
Zinnemann cast the film with a reputable ensemble (all the Who's Who in the British theater) that included Wendy Holler, as Thomas's wife Alice; Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell, Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey; Susannah York as daughter Margaret More, John Hurt as Richard Rich; Nigel Davenport as the Duke of Norfolk; Colin Blakely as Matthew, and Corin Redgrave (brother of Vanessa and Lynn) as William Roper.
Zinnemann's direction is decent and serviceable, but lacks visual imagination; the movie is dull and full of speeches and sermons.
However, Scofield, in his first major screen role (recreating his stage part), gives an admirably restrained and dignified performance, deemed by most critics sublime. Shaw also stands out as the youthful, eccentric, and tempestuous King.
Despite cinematic flaws, "A Man for All Season" was favored by the Academy for its noble and human messages over its major competitor, Mike Nichols's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"
Nominated in 8 categories, the film won 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director (second for Zinnemann after From Here to Eternity"), Actor, Screenplay, Color Cinematography (Ted Moore), and Color Costume Design (Elizabeth Haffenden, Joan Bridge).
The movie lost in the supporting acting categories (Robert Shaw and Wendy Hiller), which went to George Segal and Sandy Dennis, both for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf")