Sunday, June 18, 2006

"A Man for All Seasons" is the kind of movie where, when the main character has an argument with his daughter's boyfriend, it's about due process.

Okay, there really isn't a kind of movie like that. There's only "A Man for All Seasons."

It's about a man's love affair with the law.

There isn't any other love affair that takes up much space, which may be why the movie's continuing existence is low-key, in spite of many fine, popular, popcorn-like qualities--great renaissance costumes, amazing old English big buildings looking great inside and out, the river Thames looking thoughtful by a dusk and gorgeously sparking at midday, and an Oscar-winning performance by Paul Scofield as Thomas More, and the whole thing won the best picture Oscar for 1967.

Although there is no romance given screen time, in a way, all the action is around a romance--around the fact that Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The movie really doesn't get into that.

Anne Boleyn is a brief non-speaking role played by Vanessa Redgrave. We see her dancing by, looking drunk on alcohol, love and power. But she has nothing to do with the action of the movie.

Why the king wants what he wants isn't really the focus. The focus is the kinds of things that happens when someone with much power wants more power because he wants what he wants.

What it's about is one of those times when the head of state decides he wants what he wants and that all the laws and government workers are there to get it for him.

So smart government workers scurry to bend the law and make it all work for the big boss.

But what do wise government workers do?

That's what Thomas More tries to figure, and as things get creepier and creepier and more and different kinds of pressure are brought to get the king what he wants, people keep saying to a worried More, "But Thomas, this isn't Spain. This is England."

Or not. Things can change when people with power really want them to.

Joseph Stalin's philosophy of dealing with dissent was, "No man, no problem." Always a temptation for those at the top. It's good to have lots of structures in place to curb that impulse, as Thomas More explains to his future son-in-law, Will Roper, when they are arguing about Richard Rich.

Richard Rich, like everyone in the movie a historical figure, is in desperate need of money and is sniffing around Thomas More's household and servants in a way that makes it looks like he's spying. As all the rules change and who's in power below the king changes, many seek information on many. Thomas More is at this point powerful as Chancellor of England.

It's reasonable to suppose that Rich is picking up money by picking up and passing along information about More, who somepeople would like to replace in his job. Will Roper, the daughter's boyfriend, is the person in the play most like me--he's idealistic and has no direct power. That has its temptations. Like you can fantasize a pure (in your own terms) world, which can be a nasty fantasy.

As Richard Rich leaves the house, Will Roper says to More, Chancellor of England, "Arrest him."

More says, "For what?" Roper says, "He's dangerous." More says, "There's no law against that."

Roper says, "There is! God's law."

More says, "Then God can arrest him."

Alice, More's wife, says, "While you talk, he is gone."

More says, "And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law."

Roper: "So now you'd give the Devil the benefit of law."

More: "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, the laws all being flat. This country's 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--d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then. Yes, I'd give the Devil the benefit of law for my own safety's sake."

When I remember "A Man for All Seasons" I remember most that speech and how great the river Thames looked. Love of the river, love of the law exquisitely portrayed.

--Robert Bolt wrote "A Man for All Seasons," both the stage play and the movie. These quotes are actually from the play and are very similar to the movie.

"A Man for All Seasons" won 1967 Oscars for Best Picture, Paul Scofield got Best Actor, Robert Bolt got Best Adapted Screenplay--adapting his own play, Joan Bridge got Best Color Costume Design, and Fred Zinneman got Best Director. Wendy Hiller and Robert Shaw were nominated for supporting roles as Alice More and Henry VIII.

Robert Bolt wrote "Dr. Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia" both heavy and big fun to look at. What a beautiful world in which sometimes heavy things happen. The world of people rebelling in the snow or people riding on camels feels further away than people who are, after all, bureaucrats sharpening their knives. "A Man for All Seasons" happens in Bolt's own country, a smaller place than Arabia or Russia, and it looks great, which is a comfort, because in a certain way, it's scary movie. "This isn't Spain. This is England." Am I doing my part?