Thursday, March 20, 2008

Paul Scofield, 1922-2008

Paul Scofield handing a chalice to John Hurt in A Man For All Seasons
Paul Scofield hands a silver chalice to John Hurt in A Man For All Seasons

Paul Scofield, the actor who won a Best Actor Oscar for portraying Sir Thomas More in the 1966 movie A Man For All Seasons, has died at the age of 86.

The plot of A Man For All Seasons is fairly simple: Scofield plays Sir Thomas More, a devout Roman Catholic serving as Lord Chancellor to English King Henry VIII (played by Robert Shaw). Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon has failed to yield any surviving sons, and Henry has fallen in love with young Anne Boleyn (played in a brief cameo by Vanessa Redgrave). Of course, the Catholic Church has a thing against divorce, and His Majesty is trying to find some way to get around this problem.

This is set against a backdrop of a corrupt political establishment (there's nothing new under the sun), in which many people are perfectly willing to abandon their faith and bow to the King's wishes, if only because it will allow them to get ahead. More, however, being devout, will have nothing of this; considering the King's marriage to Catherine licit under Catholic Canon Law, he will not under any circumstances sanction the divorce and remarriage to Anne Boleyn, instead being willing to resign his post as Lord Chancellor when Henry creates his own (Anglican) Church.

Unfortunately, More is not allowed to live out the rest of his days quietly, as the King is forcing everybody to take a loyalty oath; the oath would require More to reverse publicly his stance on the King's marriage to Anne Boleyn, or else be in violation of the oath by continuing to be a Catholic. More, consequently, refuses to take the oath, and is arrested and put on trial for high treason. More, in his defense, delivers a blistering indictment of the King's actions and the political and religious establishments' willingness to abandon their moral values for political expediency, but the defense is obviously all for naught: the whole oath and trial was little more than a sham to get everybody to come to the King's position, or else get rid of those who did not agree with the King. More is sentenced to be executed, and dies for his beliefs.

The cast is excellent; in addition to Scofield, Wendy Hiller plays his wife, Alice; a young and lovely Susannah York plays his daughter, Margaret; Vanessa Redgrave's brother Corin plays Margaret's betrothed, William Roper; John Hurt appears in his first major movie as Richard Rich, a man looking to get ahead at the royal court; Leo McKern plays Thomas Cromwell; and Orson Welles has a small role as Cardinal Wolsey. Directing duties were more than capably handled by the great Fred Zinnemann, in a job that must have felt like a reprise of High Noon.

A Man For All Seasons is available on DVD and is well worth watching.

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