The great C.S. Lewis once advised that we should regularly take the opportunity between modern books to read classic ones. The same advice could be given for films, too: a healthy diet would involve going back to the older ones, back when we weren’t drowning in frequently vacuous content and when films reflected a different set of values.
The 1966 film, A Man for all Seasons, adapted from Robert Bolt’s famous stage play, is one such film worth revisiting (or viewing for the first time), especially around the time of Thomas More and John Fisher’s feast day (22 June).
The film follows More’s continuing resistance to King Henry VIII’s pursuit of a divorce from Queen Catherine, and his refusal to bend to the oath Henry forced upon his subjects, recognising him as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
More (played by Paul Scofield) is portrayed as a man utterly composed; everyone else around him is fretful and anxious, concerned about wealth and status or whether or not they will draw the ire of the king (who, much like the modern world, is a deeply unstable character). Everyone’s tempers are flared as their rationalisations and behaviour bends them out of shape. But not so with More. He knows that he cannot betray his conscience and preserve his soul, so he doesn’t.
Watching this film so close to Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, it’s impossible to avoid the common themes between the two. At one point in Malick’s film, Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector during World War II writes to his wife from a prison cell after refusing to take the oath to Hitler. In it, he says that when we let go of the idea of survival at any cost, a new light breaks in: Christ’s light, the light of eternity. When the fear of death grips us, on the other hand, it drives us to make decisions that imperil our souls.
At the end of A Man for all Seasons, the narrator, in a deadpan voice, tells us the fate of those who did compromise, of those who twisted themselves out of shape time and again to justify their king’s desires, for fear of their life:
Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The archbishop was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason, but the king died of syphilis the night before. Richard Rich became Chancellor of England, and died in his bed.
In other words, Thomas More was right: ‘Death comes for us all, even for kings.’ No one gets out of here alive. How we act in the present should be informed by the light of eternity, not by our fear of death, and certainly not by the greed and pride of the powerful.
When the Duke of Norfolk tries to convince More to sign the oath of allegiance to King Henry VIII, he cries out: ‘Oh confound all this. I’m not a scholar, I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not but dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship?’ To which More famously replies:
And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Both Thomas More and Franz Jägerstätter were laymen, with wives and children. This makes them particularly impressive saints for those with families striving for sanctity. Amidst the forces that pressure families on all sides, the question is always: what do we value most? What is the beating heart of our family? If Christ is that beating heart, that’s a dangerous and risky thing, and yet, there’s no question as to whether it’s worth it. The reward is God himself.
As More says about God at the end of the film, moments before execution: ‘He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.’
In a world bent out of shape, the saints are the ones who allow grace to keep them upright, their hearts set on eternity, even if doing so puts their lives at risk. A Man for all Seasons captures this brilliantly.