WILLIAM ROPER: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
SIR THOMAS MORE: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
Robert Bolt (in his play “A Man for All Seasons”)
This movie is the adaption of Robert Bolt’s play of the same name. It is the story of Sir Thomas More. He was a politician and a scholar who lived during the reign of King Henry the Eighth of England. But most of all he was a principled and deeply religious man. Being a personal friend of the King, he rose to the rank of Lord Chancellor but when Henry desired to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn it put him on a collision course with the Pope. And when Henry declared himself the Head of the Christian church in England, Thomas More had to resign from his office. But the powerful and unscrupulous Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, conspires to use More’s piety as a means of destroying him and ultimately have him executed.
And that is the plot of the movie. Thomas More uses his considerable intelligence to walk the tight rope between maintaining his loyalty to the King and honoring his religious convictions. But slowly and inexorably Cromwell cuts through that rope.
The movie is excellent. The dialog is wonderful and intelligent. The cast is great. Cameos by Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey and Robert Shaw as Henry the Eighth are memorable but the main actors are Paul Scofield as Thomas More, Wendy Hiller as his wife Alice, Susannah York as his daughter Margaret and Leo McKern as the villainous Thomas Cromwell. And there are other strong performances. John Hurt plays the traitorous Richard Rich and Nigel Davenport is the colorful Duke of Norfolk.
The movie won the academy awards among others for Best Movie, Best Director and Best Actor for Paul Scofield. And I think it deserved all of that. I will caution the reader that I do enjoy theater and this is undoubtedly a play adapted for cinema. It’s all about the dialog and the relationships of the principal character to the others. And it is a tour de force for Scofield. If you dislike plays this may not be for you. But for me this is great storytelling. The humanity and the intelligence of Thomas More are on full display. I literally can’t say enough good things about this movie.