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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Director: Fred Zinnemann. Highland Films/Columbia. (120 mins).
Cast & credits
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.
During the reign of Henry VIII, the King wishes to divorce his first wife, in order that he can remarry Anne Boleyn (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 (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 (anything by DeMille) or dopey sounding clap-trap (most things released in the 1950’s).
But the 1960’s saw some intelligently written, carefully produced and directed thinking man’s (or woman’s) epics, 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, something which many of us instantly familiar with, even with just a High School appreciation of the core issues involved, so it can be easy to forget the individual personalities at play here, so big are the ‘topics’ at hand.
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 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 a lot of events and actions into that time. There is no waffle, but clean and lean script construction, unlike the mighty Hollywood epics 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, but he was also witty, vastly intelligent and a warm family man, all of which are in the performance, rounded out 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. A young Redgrave pops up as Anne Boleyn in a wordless but seductive cameo.
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.