Tuesday, July 7, 2020

A Man for All Seasons (1988)

This is a review of the made-for-television film A Man for All Seasons (1988) directed by and starring Charlton Heston as St. Thomas More.  It is based on Robert Bolt's play of the same name and is not to be confused with the 1966 version starring Paul Scofield.  The 1988 version is available on DVD and is available from the usual outlets.

I have read several reviews of the 1988 version.  They invariably compare it with the 1966 film, some preferring one and some the other.  One or the other critic fails to realize that Heston was no stranger to the play -- he was More in several off-Broadway and U.K. performances just as Scofield was More on the West End and Broadway.

Personally, I much prefer the 1988 Heston version which, among other things, is more faithful to the script of the play (including the "common man" and the Spanish ambassador characters ).

Some reviewers complain that Heston did not resemble More physically while they imagine that Scofield did.  I am not so sure that is true but even if it were, the inner man is more important than the externals.

In my view, Heston conveyed the persona of More more accurately than Scofield, whose More was aloof and rather condescending.  The real More was humble in the truest sense of the word and thoroughly engaged in everything in his environs -- from the pets he kept (including a monkey) to his natural and acquired children and their spouses, to his own feisty mate Lady Alice, to his father and brother-in-law and many friends, to the citizenry of London whom he served in various legal capacities, to the Church and to the England that cost him his life.

Of central importance is that the Heston version, being more faithful to the play, provides thought-provoking dialogue about More's views of law and conscience upon which one can reflect. 

In his  1999 article in First Things entitled, "Thomas More for Our Season", the late Judge Robert H. Bork opined that Bolt got More right with regard to the saint's understanding of these subjects:
"Again [in Bolt's play, More] says: 'God made the angels to show Him splendor—as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.' Not in the pride and certainty of the individual conscience, but in the tangle of his mind."
A viewer of the film should remember this or he may become confused by the film's several references to More's "private conscience". In fact, More's conscience was not "private" -- it was Catholic.

As Peter Ackroyd suggests in his profoundly moving biography of More, the very word "conscience" implies thinking or knowing "with" (con).  Thinking with the Church is the essence of More's conscience.

In the First Things article, Judge Bork points out that the idea of a individual, private conscience is a Protestant view, not a Catholic one:  In fact, to Judge Bork, "More’s behavior may be seen as submission to external authority, a conscious and difficult denial of self."

While in a sense one's conscience is "private" in that each individual bears responsibility for his moral actions, we have a duty to form our conscience in accordance with the teachings of the Church.

Here it is illuminating to quote from the saint himself -- from his response when he was being coerced to agree with Henry VIII's repugnant policies.

More referred to the church militant elsewhere in Christendom and to the church triumphant in heaven.  Then he asked whether he was bound to conform his conscience "to the Council of one Realm against the general Council of Christendom".  Thus we see that in More's own view his conscience was anything but private; it was formed by and answered to the teachings of the universal Church.  Its locus was eternity.

See the movie and think on these things; they are as relevant now as they were nearly 500 years ago.

Image:   Thomas More and his daughter Meg in his cell in the Tower of London by John Rogers Herbert, 1844.  From Wikimedia Commons.  In the public domain.

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