If you are not familiar with the 1966 movie “A Man For All Seasons,” may I urge you to rent it and watch it. Lock the door, turn off your phone, and shut yourself in for two uninterrupted hours and I promise, you will be stirred as few movies have ever touched you. At the end, you will wipe away the tears and sit there contemplating the implications of the story you just saw for your own situation.
I was in seminary when this movie was released, and was so touched after seeing it I read everything I could find on Thomas More and King Henry VIII. Then I bought the Robert Bolt play on which the movie was based so I could go back and savor some of the choice lines. There are as many gems in this movie as any play Shakespeare ever penned. Mostly, it’s a photo essay on the high cost of integrity.
Turner Classic Movies played this Academy-Award winning movie Saturday night and I sat there for the full two hours, drinking it in as much out of curiosity as anything. Was it as wonderful as I remembered from 40 years ago?
It was far, far better–one of the true treasures from Hollywood if there has ever been one.
I have one caveat at the end of this short piece, which does not detract at all from the beauty of the movie or its impact upon anyone who would try to be faithful to God when all around him is flowing in the opposite direction. But it needs saying.
You know about Henry VIII’s succession of wives in his search for one who could give him a male heir. You perhaps know that when the Catholic Church would not dissolve his “present” marriage in order to legitimize the next union, Henry pulled his country out of the Roman Church and made himself the head of the Church of England, a condition that exists today.
The story of “A Man For All Seasons” concerns Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, the only one of his inner circle who refused to sign off on the king’s shenanigans. For that, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and then beheaded.
Robert Bolt writes in the introduction to the play, “Thomas More became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self.” (I had to look the word up. It’s related to “adamant,” which means “hard and unyielding.” It reminds me of a prayer: “Lord, give me a heart of fire toward Thee, a heart of flesh toward others, and a heart of iron toward myself.” An iron-solid sense of who he was seems to be the idea.)
Bolt continues, “He knew where he began and where he left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved.”
Bolt asks, “Why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie?” Good question, one I will leave with you who see the movie or read the play.
I’ll give you one scene. If we don’t limit it to that, we’ll be here all day and I’ll never end this.
Richard Rich (no relation to Richie Rich of children’s comic book fame, Ginger) is a sycophant early on, begging Thomas More for an appointment to this office or that. Thomas recognizes his lack of character and turns Rich down after lecturing him about the bribes and temptations he would have to withstand as an officer of the state. Rich gets swimmy-headed thinking of all those enticements. Eventually, Rich goes over to Oliver Cromwell, who is doing the king’s dirty-business, and perjures himself in order to please his new master.
When More goes on trial before the church council, Rich bears false witness against him, which gives the king’s lackeys the perfect excuse to condemn him.
As Rich walks away from the witness stand, More says to him, “That’s a chain of office you are wearing. May I see it?” He holds the chain in his hand, then says, “The red dragon. What is this?”
Cromwell says, “Sir Richard is appointed attorney-general for Wales.”
More looks into the eyes of Richard Rich and says sadly, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… But for Wales!”
I suppose my biggest disappointment in looking into the life of Thomas More was to discover he himself had sent “heretics” to their deaths without batting an eye. A heretic in those days would have been someone who believed just about what I do. A sobering thought.
That’s to remind us that while there is much to admire about More’s character and emulate about his life, one should not make him out to be more than he was. The play–and the movie–may be enjoyed and benefited from to full measure regardless.
Those who feel caught between conflicting forces in our world and who struggle to maintain their integrity in devotion to Christ will find a soul-mate in the Thomas More of this story.