In the 1960s The Academy Awards experienced a British Invasion all its own as more than half of the Best Picture winners were British productions. To my mind, none more so then A Man for All Seasons, Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of the popular play by Robert Bolt which not only nabbed the top prize plus a directing prize for Zinnemann. I have no doubt that it’s a good movie, but it’s also good for me and that illicits a kind of a resistance in me. The movie is good, but watching it, it feels like a plate a broccoli – I’m being educated while I’m begin entertained. Edu-tainment, if you will.
The story is concentrated on the struggle between English Chancellor Sir Thomas More (Best Actor winner Paul Scofield) and King Henry VIII (Supporting Actor nominee Robert Shaw) over the king’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn in the interest of his desire to father a son. Yet, More is a good Catholic and feels that such a thing is heresy. Rather than betray his own moral code over the whims of the King, More decides to step down as Chancellor and thereafter must face another whim of the king that cost him more than his seat.
What is admirable here is that director Fred Zinneman and screenwriter Robert Bolt (adapting his own play) did a good job of humanizing these men as individuals, and not just as stuffy historical figures in a painting. We feel that we’re watching people rather than listening to actors reciting dialogue. Scofield won the Oscar but, for me, the movie’s best performance comes from Robert Shaw whose spirited portrayal of the legendary king is off-set by a nasty streak of arrogance.
These two wonderful performance raise the stakes on what I think is a dusty and often very stagy movie. It’s not bad, but of all the Best Picture winners, it’s not the first movie I would pick for an evening, nor even the twelfth. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate it, I just don’t fall over myself to watch it again.