Oscar: Best Picture–Man for All Seasons (1966)

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.

But overall the year was rather weak in terms of the quality of the Best Picture nominees (see below).

As is well known, the narrative concerns 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 machination sof Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) force his hand.

With the encouragement of Zinnemann, who also functioned as the producers, 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 prestigious production, dealing with “important” issues in a middlebrow manner that was suitable to moviegoers and Academy voters.

Zinnemann casts 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.

The drama begins with Cardinal Wolsey summoning Sir Thomas More to his palace at Hampton Court, in his wish to obtain divorce from the Pope so that Henry VIII of England can marry Anne Boleyn.  Wolsey chastises More for being the only member of the Privy Council to oppose him. More holds that the Pope will never grant a divorce, and rejects Wolsey’s suggestion to force the issue. More refuses to support any efforts of annulment of Henry VIII from the Pope.

Returning to his home at Chelsea, More finds Richard Rich, a colleague from Cambridge drawn to power.  Rich asks More for a position at Court, but More, citing corruptions, advises him to become a teacher instead.

More’s daughter Meg socializes with the Lutheran William Roper, who wishes to marry her. A devout Catholic, More objects as long as Roper remains a heretic.

Wolsey dies, banished from Court in disgrace for failing to coerce divorce from the Pope. King Henry appoints More as England’s Lord Chancellor.

The King makes visits More’s home to inquire about his divorce.  More remains unmoved as the King alternates between threats and promises of Royal favor. When More refers to Catherine as “the Queen,” the King explodes into a rage, and orders the oarsmen to cast off.

Rich is approached by Thomas Cromwell, a member of Henry’s court and More’s political adversary. Cromwell inquires whether Rich has any information to damage More’s reputation in return for position at Court.

Rich pleads again for a position at Court, but More refuses, leading Rich to denounce More’s steward as a spy for Cromwell. More and his wife Alice learn that Rich is manipulated by Cromwell to spy on him. Rich enlists Cromwell’s patronage, joining him in bringing More down.

Tired of waiting for the Vatican’s annulment, the King redefines the religious institution by declaring himself “Supreme Head of the Church in England.” He demands that the bishops and Parliament renounce allegiance to the Holy See. More resigns his post as Chancellor, realizing that one cannot speak anymore openly.

After declining to attend the wedding to Anne Boleyn, More is summoned to Hampton Court, headed by Cromwell. More is interrogated, but refuses to answer, citing his right under English Law. Cromwell declares that the King views him as traitor.

Meg informs More that a new oath about the marriage is circulated and that all must take it. More is willing to take the oath, provided it does not conflict with his principles. More holds that the King cannot declare himself the head of the Catholic Church, a position that belongs to the Pope. More refuses to take the oath, which sends him to prison in the Tower of London. When More is put on trial, he remains silent, even after being convicted of treason on the perjured testimony of Rich, who is appointed as Attorney General of Wales.

More denounces the King’s actions, citing the Biblical basis for the authority of the Papacy over Christendom.  He is condemned to death, when he declares that the Church’s immunity to State interference is guaranteed in the Magna Carta and in the King’s Coronation Oath.

A narrator states in the epilogue: Thomas More’s head was stuck on Traitor’s Gate for a month. His daughter Margaret removed it and kept it ’til her death. Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The Archbishop was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason but the King died of syphilis the night before. Richard Rich became Chancellor of England and died in his bed.

Oscar Context

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”

Oscar Alert

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”).

Special Edition DVD

There is only one featurette in the Special Edition DVD (out on Feb 20, 2007) of the 1966 Oscar-winning drama: “The Life of Saint Thomas More.”