22 March 2008

'You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that..'

I find it very peculiar that, in drawing up its list of what its members regarded as the top movie heroes of all time, the American Film Institute somehow overlooked St Thomas More, as unforgettably played in A Man for All Seasons by Paul Scofield, who died on Wednesday.

Too easily dismissed as 'dull but worthy', A Man for All Seasons is genuinely worthy, but it's anything but dull. On the contrary, it's as compelling a study of heroic integrity as has ever been committed to celluloid, even more inspiring than Atticus Finch and Will Kane by virtue of being true.

Steven Greydanus sums it up well:
A Man for All Seasons is the story of a man who knows who he is. The 1966 film, which won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor, is brilliant and compelling, steely with conviction, luminous with genuine wisdom and wit. The screenplay, well adapted by Robert Bolt from his own stage play, is fiercely intelligent, deeply affecting, resonant with verbal beauty and grace. Scofield, who for years starred in the stage play before making the film, gives an effortlessly rich and layered performance as Sir Thomas More, saint and martyr, the man whose determined silence spoke more forcefully than words, and who then spoke even more forcefully by breaking it.
The film's superbly acted throughout, with Orson Welles suitably imperious as Cardinal Wolsey, Nigel Davenport hilarious as the Duke of Norfolk, and Wendy Hiller stubbornly defiant as More's wife Alice. John Hurt steals many a scene as Richard Rich, a gifted but vulnerable and vain young man who loses his soul for worldly success, having ignored More's early advice that she should put himself out of the way of temptation.
'Why not be a teacher?' More asks him, 'You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.'
'If I was, who would know it? '
'You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.'
Rich's rise in the world is marvellously -- if none too subtly -- conveyed in his increasingly opulent garb, but his face never loses the worried expression we first see upon it, and if anything he wears an increasingly hunted look. It seems apt that the film's last words refer to his fate here on earth.

I do not know if this is indeed -- as Greydanus opines -- the most profound cinematic depiction of the life of any saint, though I'd not be surprised if it were. Certainly, Greydanus is right to call it a great film, and that's due in no small part to Scofield's delicate yet powerful performance through exchanges like this, after More has allowed the untrustworthy Rich to leave his home unmolested, much to the horror of More's family who insist that he arrest him.
Sir Thomas More: And go he should, why if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
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?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas 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!
There are lessons there.

No comments: