Remembering the great actor and writer Robert Shaw.
More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.
Returning by a River Thames ferry to his home at Chelsea, More finds Richard Rich, a young acquaintance from Cambridge waiting by the dock for his return. An ambitious young man, who is drawn to the allure of power, Rich pleads with More for a position at Court, but More, citing the various corruptions there, advises him to become a teacher instead.
Entering the house, More finds his daughter Meg with a young Lutheran named William Roper, who announces his desire to marry her. More, a devout Catholic, announces that his answer is “no” as long as Roper remains a heretic.
Shortly afterwards, Wolsey dies, banished from Court in disgrace, having failed to coerce a divorce from the Pope. King Henry appoints More as Lord Chancellor of England.
Soon after, the King makes an “impromptu” visit by barge at More’s home in Chelsea to inquire about his divorce. Sir Thomas, not wishing to admit that his conscience forbids him to dissolve what he considers a valid marriage, remains unmoved as the King alternates thinly-veiled threats with promises of unbounded Royal favour. When More finally refers to Catherine as “the Queen,” the King explodes into a raging tantrum. Storming off in a huff, King Henry returns to his barge and orders the oarsmen to cast off. His courtiers are left to run through the mud and into the river to catch up as the King laughs hysterically at their predicament. At the embankment, Rich is approached by Thomas Cromwell, a member of Henry’s court and political adversary of More. Cromwell subtly inquires whether Rich has information that could damage More’s reputation, in exchange for a position at Court.
Roper, learning of More’s quarrel with the King, reveals that his religious opinions have altered considerably. He declares that by attacking the Catholic Church, the King has become “the Devil’s minister.” An alarmed More admonishes him to be more guarded as Rich arrives, pleading again for a position at Court. When More again refuses, Rich denounces More’s steward as a spy for Cromwell. Now, More and his family, including wife Alice learn the ugly truth: Rich is being manipulated by Cromwell to spy on him.
As a humiliated Rich leaves, More’s family pleads with him to have Rich arrested. More refuses, stating that Rich, while dangerous, has broken no law. Still seeking a position at Court, Rich enlists Cromwell’s patronage and joins him in attempting to bring down More. Henry, tired of awaiting for an annulment from the Vatican, redefines the Catholic Church in England by declaring himself “Supreme Head of the Church in England.” He demands that both the bishops and Parliament renounce all allegiance to the Holy See. More quietly resigns his post as Chancellor rather than accept the new order. As he does so, his close friend, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, attempts to draw his opinions out as part of a friendly chat with no witnesses present. More, however, knows that the time for speaking openly of such matters is over.
The King will not be appeased. It is suggested that More attend his wedding to Anne Boleyn. More declines and is summoned again to Hampton Court, now occupied by Cromwell. More is interrogated on his opinions but refuses to answer, citing it as his right under English Law. Cromwell angrily declares that the King now views him as a traitor.
More returns home and is met by his daughter. Meg informs him that a new oath about the marriage is being circulated and that all must take it on pain of high treason. Initially, More says he would be willing to take the oath, provided it does not conflict with his principles. One issue for More is that the King cannot declare himself to be the head of the Catholic Church as the head of the Catholic Church is the Pope. However, an expert in the law, More knows that if he does not state why he is opposed to taking the oath, he cannot be considered a traitor to the King; More refuses to take the oath and is imprisoned in the Tower of London regardless.
In spite of the bullying tactics of Cromwell, the subtle manipulation of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the pleadings of both Norfolk and his family, More remains steadfast in his refusal to take the oath. When he is finally brought to trial, he remains silent until after being convicted of treason on the perjured testimony of Richard Rich. He is then informed that Rich had been appointed as Attorney General for Wales as a reward.
Now having nothing left to lose, More angrily denounces the illegal nature of the King’s actions, citing the Biblical basis for the authority of the Papacy over Christendom. He further declares that the Church’s immunity to State interference is guaranteed both in the Magna Carta and in the King’s own Coronation Oath. More is condemned to death as the trial’s spectators scream in protest.
A narrator intones the epilogue.
Thomas More’s head was stuck on Traitor’s Gate for a month. Then his daughter, Margaret, removed it and kept it ’til her death. 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.
For obvious reasons, the Brechtian staging of the final courtroom scene (which depicted the Jury as consisting of the Common Man and several sticks bearing the hats of the various characters he has played) is changed to a more realistic setting. Also, while the Duke of Norfolk was the judge both historically and in the play’s depiction of the trial, the character of the Chief Justice (Jack Gwillim) was created for the film. Norfolk is still present, but plays little role in the proceedings.
Zinneman uses light in an interesting way throughout the film. Regardless of the time of day, More’s home is always shown in full daylight, whereas in contrast other places are seen in the dark of night. This contrast of light is often jarring. For example, the film opens with a courier delivering a message to More. The courier travels in darkness up to the wall surrounding More’s home. Once the courier enters, he finds himself in the full light of day. More travels home in darkness and pre-dawn light, only to find full daylight once he arrives home. In another scene More and his family members go to bed with daylight streaming in through the bedroom windows. Light is also used to capture moods: the king’s trip to and from More’s estate and the king’s wedding take place on bright sunny days, plotting against More takes place on a cold snowy day, More’s execution takes place on a cloudy overcast day, Wolsey’s death is presaged by a foggy day, and the passage of time is shown by the changing seasons.
The film won five BAFTA Awards for Best Film from any Source, Best British Film, Best Photography (Ted Moore), Best Production design (John Box) and Best Actor (Scofield). The film was also entered into the 5th Moscow International Film Festival where Scofield won the award for Best Actor.
It has received positive reviews from modern film critics, with an 86% approval rating in review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and the site’s consensus being: “Solid cinematography and enjoyable performances from Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw add a spark to this deliberately paced adaptation of the Robert Bolt play.”