Paul Scofield ways up a difficult demand from a not-so merry monarch
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Paul Scofield (Sir Thomas More), Wendy Hiller (Alice More), Robert Shaw (Henry VIII), Orson Welles (Cardinal Wolsey), Leo McKern (Thomas Cromwell), Susannah York (Margaret More), Nigel Davenport (Duke of Norfolk), John Hurt (Richard Rich), Corin Redgrave (William Roper), Colin Blakely (Matthew)
Writing these film reviews is sometimes harder when it’s a film you know so well. I was probably in my very early teens when I first saw this and I’ve seen it dozens of times since. I know all the scenes, all the beats, and I love it. This is a brilliant film, and its depth, richness and intelligence are ingrained. It’s a wonderfully written, played and directed piece that transforms a historical event from a history lesson into an endlessly relevant and affecting parable.
Paul Scofield (simply becoming the man) is Sir Thomas More. With Queen Catherine unable to bear Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) a son, wheels are in motion to ditch the Queen and marry the king to Anne Boleyn (a split second cameo from an unpaid Vanessa Redgrave, making you believe in a moment Anne could split a kingdom). More, however, can’t agree to the divorce – his faith in the Catholic church is non-negotiable, and the church won’t recognise the marriage. So while the rest of the kingdom falls in line, More is arrested and takes refuge in his complete silence – having never spoken of his reasons, he can never be tried for them.
Re-watching this masterful film for the first time in a few years on a newly released, fully restored Blu-ray, I was immediately reminded what a thoughtful, interesting and enjoyable film it is. Having read the play again, I genuinely think (and I’m not alone) Bolt’s script is superior to the original. Several changes have been made, most notably the removal of the “Common Man”, a theatrical device whereby one actor played all the smaller working class roles, while delivering a commentary on the action. It’s a very theatrical device, which Bolt believed wouldn’t work on screen, but its removal also purifies the story, tightens the focus and allows us to focus on More. The commentary on More’s conflicted character is instead provided by Paul Scofield’s superlative performance in close-up. Bolt also removed much of the political background, making the film more of a parable of conscience rather than a “history play”.
The film is a beautiful celebration of old-fashioned Hollywood film making. Fred Zinnemann is sometimes forgotten today, extremely unfairly for a man with a hugely impressive back catalogue. A Man for All Seasons was perfect for a director whose best work saw one man stand alone against a system – be that at Pearl Harbour or the Wild West. Zinnemann was an “actor’s director”, and draws out a series of impressive performances. But his often simple set-ups never feel staged.
He and John Box (production designer) understand the power of claustrophobia, of life and death conversations in small rooms – from Wolsey’s imposing red office that seems an extension of his personality, to Cromwell’s poky office and More’s cell, the sense of being trapped builds throughout the film. By contrast, the final courtroom’s spaciousness only underlines the fact that it’s a fix. Throughout the film looks wonderful and its spare score is a beautiful Tudor-style series of compositions that carry a perfect pitched of awe and doom. It’s so beautiful (and often overlooked) I’ve put a link to the opening here.
In fact, Zinnermann constructs the film throughout with wonderful beats and telling shots. The first appearance of Henry VIII, his head obstructing the sun, More blinking looking up, is one of the best visual impressions you’ll see of the Icarus nature of the Tudor court. A beautiful cut takes us from More (in a windswept garden, a lovely commentary on the turbulence of his life) wondering if he can find a way to sign the oath, to a shot of the view from behind his prison bars – pages and pages of story told to us in one simple cut. Later, from the same position, we’ll see a whole year pass by in a few moments – simple, unfussy, very effective. The film is packed with small, subtle moments like this that never intrude by themselves, but build to create the effect of the film wonderfully.
And this is a great film, there’s no doubt about that. The story is surprisingly simple, but Bolt and Zinnermann make it feel truly universal: the man against the state, the individual standing for what he believes is right despite all the pressure bought to bear against him. It’s a timeless parable and could be applied to virtually any time or place you could name. It’s also extremely well written: nearly every other line is memorable, the speeches are extraordinary. Every moment of reflection and observation sounds (and is) universal in its application. Its straightforwardness also helps make the story very moving, and it successfully carries out the trick of telling a movie about a saint while making him a living, breathing man we can relate to.
Of course, a large part of its success is due to Paul Scofield’s performance in the lead role. Honed after years of performing the role, it’s again almost hard to talk about individually as Scofield is so central to the film; talking about its success is in many ways to talk about Scofield’s success. Scofield’s performance is one where the actor disappears and the character remains: his More is totally real. You feel throughout not only his dignity and wisdom and his sharply defined sense of private and public morality – but also his warmness, his wit, his benevolent regard for people and those around him. He’s a caring master and friend – but not a push-over; and is adamantine in his decisions. Scofield is also able to show the contradictions of the man: a private man who cannot give up the lure of the limelight. Every beat of the performance is brilliantly observed, a list of highlights would fill a book. He carries the entire film from start to finish and never lets it slip for a second.
He’s helped by some wonderful support (and it’s a testimony to his generosity as an actor that he cedes the screen several times). Robert Shaw’s Henry VIII is a scene stealing tour-de-force. It’s up there with Robert Duvall’s Kilgore as cameos that wrench control of the movie. He’s on-screen for about 12 minutes, but he perfectly captures Henry’s charisma and his childish temper and fury. He’s intelligent (but not that intelligent – I love his sulky response when he is quickly bested by Margaret More in knowledge of Latin) and friendly but not that friendly – the sort of man who literally rips flowers from a tree to show someone how beautiful they are: destruction and excitement combined in one moment. You totally believe that this is a man who could shatter a country in a fit of pique.
Wendy Hillier also deserves notice for what might be the trickiest role in the film as Lady Alice, a woman who lives happily in the shadow of her husband. Ill-educated and lacking any understanding of her husband, it’s a part that could be almost yokel like. But Hillier brings it a world of dignity and fiery defiance, and she brings a completely convincing fury to Alice as she rails against injustice. The final scene between her and More is a masterclass from both of simple, uncomplicated love that has held two people with very little in common together for a lifetime.
There is literally not a bad performance in this film. Every actor is perfectly cast and completely understands their roles. Nigel Davenport masterfully portrays the pride and dimness that lies under Norfolk’s bluff domineering persona. John Hurt nails Rich’s weakness, selfishness and greed and layers it with a convincing note of underlying self-loathing: a star marking performance. Orson Welles seems to have prepared his whole life for the bloated, corrupt Wolsey. Leo McKern (the only other cast member from the original production) invests Cromwell with a low viciousness and a deadly political savvy that is based exclusively on realpolitik and devoid of decency. Susannah York, Corin Redgrave and Colin Blakely all also excel.
Historically, the character of More has faced far more criticism and scepticism recently. Several historians have bought attention to More’s rigid Inquisition-like Catholicism and his willingness to execute heretics; Hilary Mantel’s equally brilliant Wolf Hall was partly written as a response to Bolt’s presentations of More and Cromwell, lauding the latter at the expense of the former.
But these controversies are not what this film is about – and it’s never trying to be a history lesson. It presents its version of the story on its own terms (very little is ever leaned about the “King’s Great Matter” or the reasons for it) – instead, like The Crucible, it turns a historical event into a deeply moving and profound parable. In doing this it transcends being a simple recounting of events, and instead becomes an independent work of art. Historical accuracy is of no relevance to the audience when viewing Henry IV Part 1: it is of no matter here either, and is something the film never claims. And it’s all the better for it. Still one of my all-time favourites.