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A Man for All Seasons

In 1964 there was Becket. In 1968 there was Lion in Winter. Both were wonderful British historical dramas that were nominated for best picture, but lost to a shitty musical. Wedged in between is the one British historical drama from the era that actually won, and is the worst of the three, the best picture of 1966, A Man for All Seasons.

It is the story of Sir Thomas More, played by Paul Scofield, a noted stage actor who had little film experience at the time, but had originated the role in the stage version. You might know him as Van Dorenís father in Quiz Show.

The movie tells the story of More as he tries to avoid political trouble as an advisor to King Henry VIII during a period when he was beheading just about everybody. At the beginning More is a lawyer summoned to see Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, played by Orson Wells, who wants Moreís advice on how to handle the kingís desire to get a divorce. If you donít know the whole story behind King Henry VIII going through wives the way some people go through cars, again, I implore you, sue your high schoolís history department. Wolsey either cannot or will not come up with a solution, and the king believing it to be the latter, fires him on his death bed. With Wolsey out of the picture, More becomes the new Chancellor, the highest ranking official in England who isnít inbred. However the divorce issue heats up. At this point the king wouldnít even recognize Catherine of Aragon as his wife, and get upset with More for suggesting she is. The only solution the king finds, since the Catholic church is blocking his divorce, is to break the entire nation away from Rome. This is a move More is not ready to accept, so he resigns.

The rest of the movie centers around royal advisors attempting to trap More and Moreís trial for treason. The main thrust of their case against him is that More never acknowledged the authority of the Act of Succession, the document that named the sickly boy who would become for a short time King Edward VI as heir to the throne. More never disputes Edward VI as heir, but the act also included mention that Henry VIIIís divorce from Catherine of Aragon was legitimate, and More did not agree. The court runs into a sticky spot in that More never publicly mentioned that he had a problem with any of this. He never even made his opinion on the matter known to his wife. Those close to him correctly guessed how he felt about it, but he remained silent. When the court tried to claim that his silence was his disapproval, he refuted that claim with legal precedent, being a man who knows his legal precedent.

However this whole affair predates the whole fair trial thing by a couple centuries, so More is pretty much screwed. He is sentenced to death and next thing you know, heís at the Tower of London paying the masked man with the ax. Right before losing his head, he claims that he remained loyal to the king, but he loses his head anyway.

With the focus entirely on More, there is a lot of the story this movie fails to bring up. Henry VIII was upset that Catherine could not give him a son, but there were other reasons to cast her aside as well. They had married for reasons of international politics, but by the 1520ís, Henry had a falling out with her brother, the Holy Roman Emperor. The movie also barely touches on the horrific prospect of dynastic civil war, which had raged for a couple centuries before Henryís time, up until his father defeated Richard III. Shakespeare wrote many many plays about all of this, so if you are interested in the subject, you can look there. A Man for All Seasons is just going to gloss over it.

Despite not having very many big name actors, the acting here is excellent. Robert Shaw is an imposing presence in his rather limited role as the king, and Scofield knows this role like the back of his hand and immerses himself completely in it. The cinematography is excellent as well, mixing vibrant colors with beautiful shots.

Other nominees that year were Alfie, Sand Pebbles, Whoís Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, and The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming, which makes for a rather uninspiring field, though given Oscarís intense hatred for comedies, we should be proud that a romantic comedy and an off-the-wall caper comedy were both nominated in the same year. Another comedy released that year that wasnít nominated for anything big was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which just goes to show you that the only good musical is a Zero Mostel musical. Also released that year were Georgy Girl, which was cute, but not all that good, and Is Paris Burning, which should have been much better. There simply isnít anything there that should have been placed ahead of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Figures. The one time during the 60ís that a musical should have won, and it didnít even get a nomination.

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