A Man for all Seasons

Who doesn’t love a martyr?

Here’s Thomas More in Paul Scofield’s powerfulHolbein portrait rendering, a brilliant, quiet man who weighs his words and never gives in to his base instincts. Sure, he gets the better of Henry VIII’s henchman, Thomas Cromwell, but it’s largely a matter of out-classing him, rather than descending to Cromwell’s level.

More: “You threaten like a dockside bully.

Cromwell: “How should I threaten?”

More: “Like a minister of state. With justice.”

Cromwell: “Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.”

More: “Then I am not threatened.”

Well done, Mr. More! Or, should I say Lord Chancellor More? Or Saint Thomas More, as he became, finally, in 1935? Certainly there is much to admire in the humanist novel he wrote in 1516, Utopia, where he questioned the value of private property.

As long as there is property, and while money is the standard of all things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily; not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to the absolutely miserable.

More’s thinking would later be revived in a pamphlet published in 1834 by the abbé de Lamennais, Paroles d’un croyant [Words of a believer] which railed against the “conspiracy of kings and priests against the people,” earning Lamennais a stint in prison. But a number of utopian socialists took up the cause, and their works were read by Karl Marx. We all know where that led.

We also have this appealing comment from Utopia: “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all.”

But More had his fanatic side. He was Henry VIII’s henchman before Cromwell, and had no qualms about torturing heretics or burning them to death. He was seen as erratic and dictatorial, “using his powers as Lord Chancellor inquisitorially and in a style contrary to the Star Chamber’s accepted procedure.” He once described a Benedictine monk apprehended with books by the Protestant reformers Luther and Zwingli as “a dog returning to his vomit” — this to justify burning the man, who wished to repent.

The unsavory side of More is on full displaywolfhall in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but you won’t find Paul Scofield calling anyone a dog in A Man for All Seasons, let alone using words like vomit. He is far too erudite. Imprisoned in the Tower, he begs not for creature comforts—furs to ward off the chill, or food—but for more reading material, a request that the dastardly Cromwell denies him.

No doubt I’m viewing the man through the lens of the present, but methinks that martyrdom was all More had left, after he had so thoroughly debased himself for his sovereign.

It’s a pretty good movie, though. Watch the trailer of the newly released version.

17 thoughts on “A Man for all Seasons

  1. I’m glad you mentioned WOLF HALL. Seeing how pragmatically Cromwell acted on behalf of Henry VIII provides insights into what More himself must have done, as Cromwell’s predecessor. Given that, it’s somewhat difficult to swallow the perception of a hallowed martyrdom for More.

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      1. It also showed the precariousness of his position. He served completely at the whim of Henry VIII. What a terrifying position in which he found himself!

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  2. One aspect of the movie that really appealed to me was More’s concern for his daughter. He fostered her education and approved of her using her mind for intellectual pursuits. In my book, that definitely made him “a man ahead of his time.”

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      1. I had no idea. Do you still have your syllabus that included it? What struck your students most about the ideas in that work?

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  3. P O W E R!!! That’s the name of the game. What’s more, power has to be measured. So that leads to the accumulation of things (aka private property). In today’s world, just look at all the hedge fund billionaires (who have more money than they could ever spend in a lifetime. More would clearly disdain them. But…Donald Trump? He’d be (and probably is) jealous of them.

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      1. Oops! Didn’t mean to alarm you. I should have perhaps said “the fella who currently occupies that big white house on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C.” Still, as Ted Turner, Larry Ellison and other individuals extremely loaded up with private property have said, it’s a game for them. And they take stock among themselves in terms of just how much of that private property they possess.

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  4. Henry VIII continues to fascinate me. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the fate of people surrounding him. Not surprisingly, More’s is one of them. In the movie he certainly comes across as a moral man. Clearly, he was a man of principle, since he could never bring himself to accept Henry’s divorcing Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn. As the movie illustrates, he sought in some way (even by the slimmest technicality) to be able to take the oath (in recognition of Henry’s new marriage). Yet, not finding any way out, he accepted the reality of having to die for his beliefs. Now THAT I call courage.

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      1. Nope. In the end, he probably felt he had to do penance for all the wrongdoing he’d done, when he’d been the king’s right hand man. If only we did know just what he’d been thinking, in the tower, as he faced death AND was deprived of reading materials from which he could have taken solace!

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  5. No doubt you’ve been reading about the wave of “deaths of despair” across the United States recently. They came to mind as I read the excerpt about private property. Apparently, what used to sustain people (especially whites) on the lower levels of the economic ladder in this country was the idea that there was such a thing as upward mobility AND that their children could live better lives than their parents. In other words, people had hope. Now, with such hope disappearing, people (especially whites) are despairing and suicidal, resulting in the deaths of despair. I’m thinking that for such people, martyrs do not matter.

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      1. Movies are indeed magical. Watching them, we can go anywhere in time and/or space. From what I understand, one of the contributing factors to Shirley Temple’s fame at such an early age was her ability to entertain people, causing them to be (albeit temporarily) distracted from the dire economic circumstances facing the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. As someone who has spent a great deal of time in the company of Henry VIII (through the movies and programming on TV, especially on PBS), I enjoy being (temporarily) transported away from the deaths of despair news and related trends. But, I have to admit, as I read your comments on movies, I have a compelling tendency to make connections to what we’re seeing taking place around us these days in our everyday lives. So,
        pardonez-moi, if I inadvertently worked at cross-purposes with “this review as a distraction.”

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  6. There are striking parallels, no denying it. But I found Scofield’s performance so riveting, I was only too happy to escape into the Tudor era. Now I’m looking forward to reading Bring Up the Bodies, which has been sitting on my Kindle for quite some time.

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    1. Bravo, Scofield! He won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. Let’s just consider that one of the few times when the Academy got it right.

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