Film review of the Tudor-era set historical drama about the battle of religious convictions between Thomas More (Paul Schofield) and King Henry VIII’s (Robert Shaw) state when More remains quiet on the issue of allegiance to Henry’s desire to break from the Roman Catholic Church, in order to marry Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave).
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During the reign of Henry VIII, the King (Robert Shaw) wishes to divorce his first wife, in order that he can remarry Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave) with the hope of siring a much desired son and heir to his throne. To do this, he breaks with the Roman Catholic Church and installs himself as supreme head of the new Church Of England.
Sir Thomas More (Paul Schofield) is one of his closest friends and trusted advisers. A staunch Catholic and supporter of the first Queen, he refuses to accept or refuse to sign the pledge of allegiance to the new state of affairs, remaining silent on the issue – thereby, not condemning himself to any fate.
A tale of legal, personal and moral convictions plays out as More is investigated for his recalcitrance.
Historical or religious epic films have a bit of a ‘see-saw’ reputation, sometimes gawdy and overly serious (DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, 1949) or just clap-trap (The Conquerer, 1956).
But the 1960’s saw intelligently written, handsomely produced and carefully, tellingly directed thinking human’s pieces, such as the work of David Lean or this mid-decade offering from Zinnemann who knew a fair bit about making thoughtful, questioning productions (The Men, 1950 and High Noon, 1952).
Henry VIII’s break with Rome is a story infused into the fibre and essence of England and its people, the fallout of which is something that still creeps into the public consciousness at times and can still generate front page headlines in the nationals.
It is something which many of us are instantly familiar with, even just a High School appreciation of the core issues involved, so it can be easy to forget the individual personalities that were at play when the events actually happened, so big and earth-shattering are the issues at play.
Writer Bolt, fresh from success with Laurence Of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), adapts his play with consummate, almost easy skill.
This is blissfully arty dialogue which not only sounds beautiful, tripping from the carefully chosen actors’ tongues before dancing a merry gavotte across the screen, but it also fulfills its functional purpose.
These are words which lucidly establish characters and motivations, background history as well as complex politcial and religious motivations. Note too, this epic is only two hours long, yet crams in a lot of events and actions into that time. There is no waffle, but clean and lean script construction, unlike other mighty Hollywood movies that dawdle and lumber over three hours of bladder busting duration.
Schofield had triumphed on the stage as More so was the correct and only choice to lead in the film version. He made few films during his long acting career and this is the part he is most famous for. More may have been pedantic and obstinate in real life (or a genocidal religious maniac to others), but he was also witty, vastly intelligent and a warm family man, all of which are in the performance, rounded off by Schofield’s famous, honeyed tones once likened to a Rolls Royce starting up.
The supporting cast is top drawer. Hiller, as More’s second wife Alice, glowers and gurns in magnificent style.
A young York shows pre-feminist mettle as More’s educated daughter Meg and only the awesome, porcine Welles could play Cardinal Wolsey with sweating, plotting malevolance.
An impossibly young Redgrave pops up as Anne Boleyn in a wordless but seductive cameo, blowing King Henry’s hair as he sings to her.
A big hit in its day, it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design.
Cast & credits
Director: Fred Zinnemann. Highland Films/Columbia. (120 mins).
Producer: Fred Zinnemann.
Writer: Robert Bolt.
Camera: Ted Moore.
Music: Georges Delerue.
Sets: John Box.
Paul Schofield, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, Susannah York, Nigel Davenport, John Hurt, Corin Redgrave, Colin Blakely, Vanessa Redgrave.