"Death comes for us all, My Lord ... even for kings." -- Sir Thomas More
Director: Fred Zinneman
Writer: Robert Bolt
Principal cast members:
History will record that Sir Thomas More was something of a Catholic zealot who persecuted heretics including Protestants with ruthless vengeance and served briefly as the chancellor to King Henry VIII before the reformation and the creation of the Church of England. History can be rather dull and present rather lifeless images of men. It is well then, that we have extraordinary dramatic writing and brilliant acting performances to liven things up a bit.
The 1966 adaptation of Robert Bolt's highly successful stage play stands as one of the most superbly acted and directed historical films on record. It tells the story of Sir Thomas More as a courageous and clever man living in dangerous times, standing on his faith amid the turbulence of court politics in the Tudor era. It is a film that benefits greatly from a beautifully written script and a director whose visual subtleties are extraordinary. But far beyond those qualities, this motion picture was blessed with possibly the finest collection of acting talent ever assembled on film.
At the top of the British government in this movie is Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII. The Holbein portraits tend to show us a rotund and placid Henry that belies what historians know of the man. He was a man of enormous energy and appetite, creative, intelligent, and emotional. Shaw gives us a letter-perfect embodiment of this description. Shaw's Henry guffaws then shifts effortlessly to deep emotional appeals to friendship followed by thundering rage, and it is as real as can be. It matches the dialogue and it perfectly suits the scene. This is a king that will brook no disobedience, yet he prizes honesty and truth. He is being of contradictions that makes no apologies and assumes total loyalty.
Many who work for him have flatly subverted much of their personalities to please him. Orson Welles is a heavy-handed and fatalistic Cardinal Wolsey, chief spiritual advisor of the nation. Despite his devotion to God and the Church, Wolsey is first and foremost a servant of the King of England and he is ready to cut corners and turn a blind eye, if need be, to help his sovereign steer the ship of state.
His secretary, Thomas Cromwell, is played with brutal perfection by Leo McKern. Cromwell is less conflicted than Wolsey because he has only one master and that is ambition. Cromwell is perfectly willing to trample the Church, the law, and any individual who stands between Cromwell and his ability to satisfy Henry's wishes.
John Hurt plays Richard Rich, a young man whose ambition rivals that of Cromwell, but whose scruples tie his hands when it comes to reaching for them. Over the course of the film, we see Richard slowly succumb to ambition at the cost of his ethics. It is a painful transition and one that he seems powerless to prevent, despite the best intentions of the one man he most thoroughly admires. It is a superb tribute to Hurt's skills that his character is the one we most hate and at the same time, the one we most pity.
These political powers swirl around the family of Sir Thomas More and each family member has a few moments to demonstrate their strengths. More's son-in-law, William Roper, is played by Corin Redgrave. In Roper we see a man ruled by impulse and passion, going dreadfully wrong with the purest of motives. In a wry moment, his father-in-law observes that it is not better family that he needs, but a watch. The line is symbolically perfect as it is timing that separates the passionate, courageous Roper from greatness.
Roper is courting More's daughter, Margaret. Susannah York gives us a Meg that is as brilliant as she is beautiful and it is easy to see why she is the apple of her father's eye even as he is her hero. Whether giving Latin lessons to the king or attempting to advise her father on legal matters, Meg is an irresistible bright spot in a rapidly dimming future for the movie's hero.
At More's side is his wife, Alice. Dame Wendy Hiller plays Alice in one of the three roles that garnered Oscar nominations for this film. She is More's conscience and his lioness. Quick to chastise him when she thinks he is going wrong, she is also his staunchest defender and admirer and perfectly willing to jump into his place as a martyr. In a film where More faces many great perils and dangers, it is only Alice who can reduce him to tears with the power of her love for him.
Beside More at the start, then drifting slowly away is his closest friend, The Duke of Norfolk played here by Nigel Davenport. Norfolk is a man whose religious fervor and legal brilliance pale dramatically next to More's, but this simplicity also makes it easier for him to navigate the politics of the time. Like a true best friend, he loves More but grows increasingly frustrated with his friend's unwillingness to compromise and seek the easy path.
And at the center of it all, of course, is Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More. It is not enough to point out that Scofield won Best Actor Awards from the Oscars, the BAFTAs, the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, the Laurels, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, and the Moscow International Film Festival. No doubt, there has never been such unanimous agreement about the greatness of one acting performance before or since. Yet that still really isn't enough.
Scofield brings to life a character that is both extremely human and something far greater. We can understand much of More in his obvious love of family and pleasure in the company of friends. His mentoring approach to Richard Rich and William Roper contrast with his careful, guarded advice to Cardinal Wolsey and the King. Then there are his legal debates with Cromwell which crackle with malevolent energy as well as More's intellectual brilliance. Actors are sometimes asked to bring embodiment to archetype and in this case, Scofield is tasked with making More the very embodiment of ethics and a strong moral center. Leo McKern, as his nemesis Cromwell, is tasked with giving us amoral ambition unchecked by ethics of any kind. The clash of these two is nothing short of brilliant.
The differences between them are highlighted beautifully in one exchange where Cromwell is attempting to force a confession of disloyalty from More. More criticizes him by saying, "You threaten like a dockside bully." It is apparent that Cromwell is not insulted by this but he is amused and asks, "How should I threaten?" More replies instantly with, "Like a minister of state. With justice." Wanting to keep up the terror, Cromwell leans close and hisses, "Oh, justice is what you are threatened with." More smiles benignly and replies, "Then I am not threatened."
When More's son-in-law derides him for giving the Devil the benefit of protection under the law, More's electrifying passion in defending the importance of the law gives one goosebumps. Here is a man who finds enormous peace from understanding how his world is ordered and knowing exactly where he stands in the legal sense. He has infinite patience as long as his legal situation is under control. When others, especially those in authority, suggest that he may be wrong, his passionate defense of his views can light up the screen.
Over the course of the film, it is clear that Cromwell has been tasked with forcing More to acknowledge the rightness of King Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. The major problem confronting Cromwell is that there is virtually nothing legally binding with which More can be threatened. When he suggests to the Duke of Norfolk that he has evidence that Sir Thomas may have accepted bribes while Chancellor of England, Norfolk is scathing: "What? Goddammit, he was the only judge since Cato who didn't accept bribes! When was there last a Chancellor whose possessions after three years in office totaled one hundred pounds and a gold chain?"
Eventually, unable to persuade Sir Thomas to endorse the marriage, Cromwell has him imprisoned. At this point, the search for evidence is not for blackmail purposes, but to try Sir Thomas for treason and use him as an example of what happens to those who are disloyal to the king. Even this proves more than Cromwell can manage for he is, in fact, prosecuting one of the most loyal advisors the King ever had. In the end, he bribes Richard Rich with a position of office in Wales in exchange for Rich's perjury that he heard More make disloyal statements. More's spiritual analysis of the situation is priceless.
"Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?"
Much of what is shown in the film is historically accurate, if perhaps shaded somewhat to create even more sympathy for the story's hero. What we can say of More historically is that he was a loyal advisor to the King but grew increasingly conflicted as the King separated himself from the authority of the Catholic church. History does record that More was very careful about maintaining correct legal protection of his own career and reputation and it also shows him to be a devoted family man and good friend. The likelihood that Rich's testimony was perjury is heightened by counter-witnesses and the very fact that More was extremely careful about avoiding the exact statements Rich testified to More having made.
Whether or not the film is accurate history is ultimately meaningless. This is a depiction of an exemplary life lived in steadfast faith and devotion to principle. It is impossible to watch it dispassionately or without admiration and that is the proof of the amazing performances contained here. The cinematography and music perfectly capture the era and the atmosphere of the time. But the passion and pathos that is hurled onto the screen by this amazing cast gives us a movie experience that is rare in this or any time.
Coolness factor: 5
Overall entertainment: 9