“Why, Richard,” Sir Thomas More says to Richard Rich, who has just perjured himself in exchange for a high government post in Wales, “it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?”
So goes an unforgettable line that many fans of the 1966 movie “A Man for All Seasons” can recite by heart. It’s one among many in a film packed with brilliant dialogue, profound moral insight and high drama. The 50th anniversary of the movie’s release offers an opportunity for another look at this surprising combination of characteristics: a Hollywood film about a Catholic saint and martyr that insightfully explores the nature of conscience, law and magisterium, and which received the industry’s highest honors and attained near-blockbuster status.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by Robert Bolt, “A Man for All Seasons” premiered in New York City on Dec. 12, 1966. It was the screen adaption of the hit 1960 play, also written by Bolt.
Both play and movie tell the story of St. Thomas More, the 16th-century English layman, scholar and lawyer who rose to the position of chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. When Henry demanded an oath of all the nation’s political and religious leaders, acknowledging him as supreme head of the Church in England, More chose instead to die. But he did so despite the pleas of his family and only after exhausting every possible avenue to avoiding such a fate.
An instant hit, the movie became the fifth highest grossing film of the year. It won six Oscar awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Today, few would deny its status as a classic. Indeed, just a few years ago, one Vatican office included it on a list of the greatest movies of all time.
“‘A Man for All Seasons’ is almost everyone’s introduction to Thomas More. It brought More to wide public attention in a really astounding way,” Louis Karlin, a research fellow with the Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas, told Our Sunday Visitor.
The Thomas More viewers meet is a man who insists on remaining faithful to his conscience despite the most terrible consequences. His character serves as an illustration of the primacy of one’s conscience before God.
In one famous scene, one of More’s colleagues begs him to sign the oath as the rest of his associates had done. “Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship?” he asks. More replies: “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
Sister Rose Pacatte, a Daughter of St. Paul and director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, calls that fellowship scene “absolutely brilliant.”
“Paul Scofield perfectly embodies the internal torture that Thomas More must have experienced in choosing God over his family, his king and everything else,” Sister Pacatte told OSV.
Though widely admired by Catholic viewers for a half-century now, the movie has not been without some criticism. Perhaps the most common complaint is that More is portrayed more as an individualist relying solely on his own conscience, rather than as a man of faith who died rather than deny Catholic doctrines.
Karlin acknowledges validity to that point but notes that such a depiction was a deliberate choice by the screenwriter Bolt, and with good reason.
“Bolt, writing in the 1960s, wanted to confront what he thought was a really crucial problem for his time — the loss of an understanding that politics should be grounded in morality, that true statesmanship is grounded in personal virtue. He intentionally did not emphasize More’s Catholicism or religion at all, because he wanted to speak across sectarian lines in what was already beginning to be a post-Christian era,” Karlin told OSV.
Sister Pacatte agrees that Zinnemann and Bolt created a movie that appeals far beyond Catholic audiences and remains as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
“This movie transcends history. It reminds us that we’re all called, in little ways every day, to follow our consciences. They’re constantly pulled into play in the decisions that face us. The question is, do we listen?” she said.
Watching the film provides tremendous insight into the virtue that lies at the heart of all sanctity.
In one scene, More’s daughter, Meg, suggests he needn’t give his life for a point of principle.
“Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” she implores.
More responds: “Well, finally, it isn’t a matter of reason. Finally, it’s a matter of love.”
Barry Hudock writes from Minnesota.