July 27, 2008

A Man for all Seasons


A Man for all seasons was made in the 1960s about events which took place in the 1530s. It is of course highly inaccurate. It concerns the life of Sir Thomas More, a formidable lawyer and politician who briefly rose to become Chancellor of England in the 1530s before being executed by Henry VIII for high treason later in that decade. More was one of the leading opponents of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and his creation of the Church of England and eventually was executed for his opposition. The film takes a positive view of More and traduces other characters of the period- Thomas Cromwell for example and Richard Rich- More afterall burnt those who disagreed with him at the stake, Cromwell and Rich were not as self serving as they seem here, nor was Archbishop Cranmer, but historical inaccuracy is seldom important within a movie. The spell of 90 minutes cannot capture the intensity or the incompleteness of historical time- no more than it can recreate the intimate texture of a novel. As with the adaptation of a book, the adaptation of history is the use of history by the director to fit his or her template. The intelligence of the film maker creates his or her own history of a period: and the real questions that can be asked are not about accuracy (inaccuracy is guaranteed) but about the degree to which the director is historically aware and the degree to which the film makes an interesting point. Both of these concerns I think are reflected in a Man for all Seasons however imperfectly and make it, though bad history, a good historical film.

Thomas More’s life took place against a wide European debate about what a wise man ought to do at court. Should the wise man abstain and cultivate his wisdom in academic leisure? Or should he attempt to councel princes to abandon their fleshy desires and turn their minds to the improvement of the public good? Would such councel be listened to if proffered and would association with a prince end up with the wise man, the philosopher, being corrupted by such association? These ideas of course were not new in the 16th Century: Aristotle had argued that politics is the appropriate area for men to exert themselves though he too had given credit to the life of leisured contemplation in his Politics. Thomas More himself was aware of the subject: in his own Utopia the subject is a matter of dispute between a character called More and the sailor Raphael Hythloday who argues that there is no such thing as a prince willing to listen to a wise man. This dilemma is referred to openly at the beginning of a Man for all Seasons when More is asked by a young potential protégée, Richard Rich, what he Rich should do. More tells him that the court will offer him only corruption and that Rich should go into teaching and content himself with a private life, where only his friends, his students and his God will know him.

That dialogue runs straight through the Man for all Seasons. This is a film about a central issue in the sixteenth century, what to do when you are in a court? Various characters in the film operate by various strategies. Thomas Cromwell is a psychopathic killer, enjoying the freedom granted by having the King’s ear to mow down anyone in his path. Richard Rich is in the film a man afflicted by his ambitious desires, if the only way to do that is to perjure himself, then he will sweat with pangs of conscience but he will swear. The Duke of Norfolk is a third case: Norfolk goes along with Cromwell because he has things in life and fears that they will be taken away from him should he not. Norfolk like Rich is a courtier from a human emotion, only in his case it seems not to be ambition. Norfolk is at court because he is a coward. We know he really agrees with More, furthermore we know that he does not like the proceedings against More and even at More’s show trial right at the end of the film, Norfolk sympathises. But crucially sympathise is all he does: because do more than sympathise and his life is forfeit. And then of course, fourthly there is Sir Thomas himself. He eventually abandons his own life for the sake of something higher: as he says to the witnesses of his execution, ‘I die his Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first’.

The film is most interested in unpacking More’s motivation for his lonely steadfast stance. We are told that he could have escaped from the axe. We are shown that he could have escaped and that many wished, as far as I can see every character bar Cromwell in the film, wishes that he would escape. So why did he do it? The first answer is that he did it out of his religious faith: and the film argues that he did say that that was why he did it. Schofield, playing More, pronounces speech after speech stating that it was faithfulness towards God that kept him constant. And yet again, we are reduced to asking the question what made More special. What was it that kept him firm to his promise when everyone else fell back? In all eras, at all times, there are men and women who seem to keep faith with an idea despite the rack and the torture chamber, despite the axe and the noose. Rather than being interested in the specific idea or sixteenth century context, the film makers are interested in the universal quality of steadfastness for an idea.

Why does More stay faithful to this idea? He tells us that an oath is ‘words we say to God’, that ‘when a man takes an oath, he is holding his own self in his own hands like water and if he opens his fingers then he needn’t hope to find himself again’. He does suggest that man’s natural business lies in escaping, but his argument is that this is an oath that he cannot take. He cannot stand up and say without betraying the essence of himself and his relationship with his creator that Henry VIII is supreme Head of the Church of England and Anne Boleyn his rightful wife. It is in part a theological question and Roger Bolt the writer leaves us in no doubt that More’s argument is theological: God has put him into this situation to test him and he will pass the test. If history forces him to be a hero and a saint, then that is what he would rather be than stand at the gates of heaven and say that he broke his vows of love to Christ. But Bolt’s twentieth century sensibility adds to this an existential angle- identity is what More talks about all the time. It is not merely hell he worries about but what he is, the fibre of his body he says to Norfolk is bound up in this moment. And should he forget that fibre, should he decide to recant, then he would lose what made him himself. Henry VIII here represents not just a threat to an immortal soul’s chance of heavenly glory, but to the soul’s chance of being itself. Tyranny threatens not merely the temporal or heavenly existence of the individual but the individual as an entity.

More preserves his self, not by speaking, but by utter and absolute silence. His refusal to speak is a refusal to define himself by categories that the outside world employs- at one point he even tells his judges that the outside world must judge him as it wishes, but his silence proves that any of their surmises could be correct. More’s silence is a refusal to be defined- but its also a withdrawal from the world of the court where words of course are used to charm, flatter and deceive about one’s own purposes. More refuses to do that, words for him are tools to reveal himself and as they are used for courtly ends, they fail a man’s inner personality. What matters to More is not that ‘I believe it’ but that ‘I believe it’, such integrity in the world of a court leads to his resignation and eventually his execution. The perfect courtier, Thomas Cromwell, knows that he cannot be believed for his word is worthless, a product of expediency in the battles of the court for power and ultimately possession. Silence is of course an apt way to proceed- the court demands answers, the court demands flattery, laughter in the appropriate places. To be silent is to reserve one’s personality, is to declare one’s individuality and to declare the solitude of one’s own personality. That is why the film shows More’s silence to aggravate the servants of tyranny. When More asks for liberty as ‘I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm and if this be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith I long not to live’ he defines a liberal creed, as opposed to tyranny which demands men speak and perform acts in pursuit of a policy. All More asserts is the liberty to retire, Cromwell and the court argue that no man can retire and that all of life is political and ultimately punishable.

It is a modern theme, but explored using a historical story and furthermore running out of historical themes. The conflict between courtliness and honesty, between Kings of heaven and Kings of earth was a real one in the sixteenth century. The film may not be historically accurate but it captures the pressure of being at court, and the dangers of iconoclasm very well. As a meditation though, it is imbued with modern ideas and modern analysis. It is about the way that More’s resistance to tyranny is an existential resistance, a resistance based around the individual’s integrity to himself. The assertion in the film goes further than anyone in the sixteenth century would have gone, the film asserts that only under a liberal regime is it possible to retain one’s individuality. Only under the law is it possible to retain one’s extra legal personality. Curiously, the argument here is that only under a liberal regime is it possible for an honest man to serve in politics because he has the liberty to abstain from supporting his state, even at the moment of highest drama. Silence is a privilege maintained by liberal governments. Ultimately under liberalism, the vultures- Cromwell, Wolsey, Rich, Norfolk will all survive- but More will not lose his life, merely his career. For More, there can be no disconnect between the private personality and the public one- one cannot sublimate the former to the latter unless with silence, and that is of course something that no tyrant will ever allow.

It is though a problem that even the opportunist feels: on his death bed we see Wolsey tell Norfolk, ‘If I had served God one half so well as I had served my King, God would not have left me here to die in this place’- Wolsey doesn’t mean the place that he dies, he means the place of dishonour that he dies within. The contrast to More’s death which he meets with serenity and the assurance that he is to go to a better place is the contrast between two victims of tyranny- the one victim who bent to the will of his King, the other who did not. The victim who bent dies though with the knowledge that he became an instrument and was discarded when the life was sucked from him. That is the fate of the courtier under tyranny: a fate that the film’s Thomas More avoids with his silence and his execution.

9 comments:

jmb said...

I don't know enough about the era to see all the historical shortcomings of this film but I consider it one of the best films I have ever seen and have watched it quite a few times (own the DVD, of course).
It has great dialogue and the acting is superb, all in all one my top ten.

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

It had its shortcomings but the story is good enough to carry it through.

I Beatrice said...

My knowledge of Sir Thomas More is based largely on the film “A Man for all Seasons”, so I feel ill-equipped to take issue with you on any points of history or philosophy...

In my view however, you omitted the most memorable quote of all (and it was a marvellous script of Robert Bolt’s!). It occurred at More’s trial, when Richard Rich had testified against him (Rich, if you recall, having courted favour with the great and good, and recently been made Chancellor for Wales).....

More turned to Rich and said: “It profiteth a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world – but for WALES, Richard...?”

A rather unkind slur on poor old Wales of course (and believe me, I love Wales deeply) – but who could resist the line?

Gracchi said...

JMB, James I personally think Paul Schofield makes the film- its such a good performance from one of my favourite actors.

Beatrice- I love that quote I didn't want to bury it in a long article but at some point I'll use it!

I Beatrice said...

I think I may have misquoted slightly - I haven't been back to check, but in bible-speak it probably went "It profiteth a man nothing IF HE GIVE his soul for the whole world......"

Sounds better anyway.

Ian Appleby said...

That's another fine reading, and it helps answer a question I am asking about positive portrayals of people acting according to their conscience.

The central dilemma is very resonant in my specialist country, and, as you know, not only for those in court (about which latter point: have you read the collection "Sandro of chegem", by Iskander, in particular "Balthazar's Feast"?)

the leaves of autumn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
p said...

i couldn't resist posting as this is one of my favourite movies...and that's how i stumbled across your blog. but truly, i think the key to understanding the fictional character of thomas more isn't just that he goes to heaven...or not.

robert bolt observed he wants to portray what it means to have a strong centred self in a shifting world.
and it is interesting that that's what thomas more (i.e. fictional character) focusses on...
i.e. when a man takes a oath an all...

the real thomas more was a more complex, and less savory character of course but still... it's definitely a fabulous movie!

Daniela Major said...

I have become more and more interested in Thomas More. He is a character that intrigues me and that is why I have searched for some post that you may have written about him. This is the reason why I ´m commenting a post that has more than a year.
I admit that I admire T. More. I’ve always had some “soft spot” for courageous personalities. Of course that I am aware that More did wrong things. And he did them convinced he was doing the right thing – which is even worse. The burnt of heretics it ´s the best example. He doesn’t gather consensus because he is a complex personality and there are many facts of his life and character that are still unknown. And those that exist seem a little contradictory. But I honestly think that More was a good man who stand for his beliefs and end up dying for that. He made a choice and he chose to die. For me, More was an honest and integrate man in a corrupt court. How many of them disagree with Henry ´s actions? And how many of them stood against the King?

In this text your opinion of Thomas More is based on the film. As I understood you are talking about the Thomas More that appears in the film. I can ´t speak about it because I ´ve never seen it. What I want to know is your opinion as a Historian, of the real Thomas More. The More that burned heretics, the More that wrote the Utopia, the More that refused to take the Oath, the More that was very devoted yet a humanist.