Keen to produce an heir, English King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) demands that the Roman Catholic Church approve his divorce so he can marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. This puts the church in an awkward position, because the pope had given Henry special dispensation to marry in the first place. (The king married his brother’s widow.) When Henry seeks to invalidate the pope’s earlier action in order to justify a new marriage, he encounters stubborn opposition from Chancellor Thomas More (Paul Scofield), a devout Catholic torn between his duty to the church and his obligation to the crown. Though More doesn’t formally forbid the marriage — an act that would be construed as treason, punishable by death — his silence speaks volumes and leads to his imprisonment.
Based on Robert Bolt’s play of the same name, A Man for All Seasons is the story of the clash between More and his king. Bolt adapted his own work to the screen and won an Academy Award for his efforts, and the picture won five other Oscars, including prizes for cinematographer Ted Moore, BSC and director/producer Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity).
At first glance, Zinnemann’s choice of cinematographer might have seemed odd. When the director brought him aboard A Man for All Seasons, Moore was primarily an action cameraman best known for his work on the first four James Bond films. (He went on to shoot three more pictures in the franchise). Yet it is precisely Moore’s energetic style that helps infuse Bolt’s talky theater piece with passion and dynamism. A Man for All Seasons is essentially a series of rigorous debates between More and those who oppose him, but it rarely feels static or dull. To the contrary, Moore’s dramatic lighting and landscape photography give the intimate character study the impact of an epic.
This achievement is due in part to the filmmakers’ decision to film several sequences on location in the English countryside. The movie is filled with sumptuous images that give Bolt’s theological debates a concrete historical reality, and this sense of reality gives the film’s moral conflicts great immediacy. The picture is a period piece that is riveting to modern eyes yet preserves the specificity of its historical moment. Most of all, however, it is a moving portrait of a man determined to stay true to his beliefs, regardless of the cost. Moore makes great use of contrast to express the chancellor’s internal and external conflicts.
The cinematographer proves to be as adept at portraiture as he is at sweeping vistas, and both are impressively showcased on this recently released DVD. The picture transfer is excellent, particularly in the many low-light interior sequences. The Dolby sound mix is an improvement over the previous DVD release, offering greater clarity in dialogue and sound effects. (To be honest, however, the talky nature of the piece doesn’t take full advantage of the 5.1 format).
Although Sony has labeled this release a “special edition,” the package contains just one supplement, an 18-minute featurette called “The Life of Saint Thomas More.” Featuring interviews with More scholars, the short documentary provides a historical context for the film and is a helpful companion piece.