A Man For All Seasons (1966) [Masters of Cinema] Blu-ray Review

by James M. Macleod

Fred Zinnemann’s most well known film is the classic Western High Noon. Like many Westerns of the time it’s a look at our basest morality. In a time where justice is in the hand of any good man our ideals and integrity is at its most immediate test. There are certainly no guns or physical showdowns at all here, unless you count Robert Shaw as Henry VIII bellowing in his muddy tights, but A Man For All Seasons fulfills a similar role. It’s the story of Sir Thomas More’s non-confrontational rebellion against the state and King. I can see why Andrew Sarris called the film a “successful middlebrow enterprise” and I can agree about its safe visual style. Yet, in a time where party politics reign and too many like Sen. John McCain admonish with words but not with what actually matters, their vote, this story can’t help but somewhat resonate.

Where the film works best is in its script and cast. Despite both of those things being rather mixed too. When Robert Bolt is attached to a filmmaker like David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia he brings wit and character whilst Lean brings the cinema. As much as I like High Noon I couldn’t help but feel Zinnemann taking a back seat to Bolt and the cast. That cast being Paul Scofield as More, Shaw, Wendy Hiller, John Hurt, Leo McKern, Orson Welles, and an uncredited Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn. As good as everyone is it sometimes feels like they’re not being given much to do, or what they’re given isn’t quite up to snuff. John Hurt as the weak-willed and desperate Richard brings a real sense of tragedy to his increasingly sniveling rat of a character. His layers don’t quite jive with the portrayal of Cromwell (by Leo McKern) who’s a bit too much of a moustache-twirling straw man made to make a moral stand against. They are two different sides of ambition, yet separated more by exaggeration than much else. People like Shaw, Hurt, Scofield, and Hiller (when she’s more to do than complain) bring life to the production and sell Bolt’s witticisms well enough.

I shouldn’t completely sell Zinnemann short in terms of his approach to cinema. Given the time and quality of the blu-ray the colours are rich and vibrant. This highlights the status of characters quite immediately and the costume design is just non-ornate enough to remind one that the veneer of history is thin. What is to be examined is the people beneath it all. There are also a few moments where editing gets a little less workmanlike. Such as when More gets dubbed Chancellor and we fade to him getting the boat back home. We start on the ripples of the water before moving back to him. He leaves the same way he came but with a gold chain and goblet given by a desperate townsperson awaiting trail, both of which will have repercussions down the line. Not exactly the most complex metaphor but it’s neat, and one of the few times the ideas are not spelled out with words.

Masters of Cinema’s new blu-ray can’t be faulted technically, and a short documentary on the disc gives more historical context for those interested. For me though the film doesn’t sing. It makes its case pointedly with an occasional dryly chuckle-worthy line, but it can’t escape its stage roots.

DUAL FORMAT SPECIAL FEATURES including:

· Gorgeous High-definition presentation

· Optional English subtitles

· The Life of Saint Thomas More — featurette

· Original Theatrical Trailer

· Masters of Cinema exclusive trailer

· BOOKLET featuring new writing on the film.