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NEXT TIME AN OPERA

Writer Robert Bolt used in A Man For All Seasons a close substitute for melodic verse—some of the transcribed-on-paper words of Sir Thomas More—that could satisfy an audience hungry for the sounds of righteousness. We wouldn’t be tempted to call the Bolt heaps a litterateur’s arias—as we would, say, about Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood and James Joyce’s The Dead—but they’re long distant cousins to those kinds of compositions. Yet the heaps aren’t really gratifying because those we get feel truncated; just as Paul Scofield’s More starts to soar the lofty ethics, he gets cut short and not by the axe. The abridgement may be built in: the critical distinction between the intent of Bolt’s rigged libretto and what many others feel about More’s intransigence, in regard to Henry VIII taking charge of the Church of England and thereby nullifying Vatican control, is that More committed to the chopping block without confessing his stand as an act of extreme egocentricity; with his fate not just sealed but accepted, he sacrificed his powerful thorniness to Henry VIII as a guarantee of immortality, both for history and sanctimony’s sake. If there’s amusement in the stern omniscience, it comes to a halt when hearing him tell his wife and daughter to do what he won’t, their souls being less important than his. While some historians posit that More’s humanist scholasticism forbade him to consider martyrdom, there are those who believe that in his persistent unwillingness to compromise he was creating the gift of opportunity for the Vatican to exploit his fate while downplaying its own corruption. (Bolt manages to obligatorily infer a bit of the latter.) However, when Henry sent him to the Tower, breaking a publicized promise never to “molest” More’s conscience, it wasn’t his death that Rome initially and vehemently responded to, it was the beheading of one of its princes—John Cardinal Fisher, who also rejected Henry’s claim as supreme head of the Church of England. He’s absent from the movie’s list of characters. (Both Fisher and More would be beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonized in 1935 by Pius XI.) Scofield earned a slew of awards—honors more rightly belonging to Richard Burton that year. On the whole it’s a smuggy performance; listening to him protestations against ever-expanding violations of decency and ignore his self-imposed conundrums, it’s More as the pharisaic don in perpetuity. Wendy Hiller as Lady Alice is quite moving, making her farewell to More the movie’s one laudable sequence. Robert Shaw as Henry and Nigel Davenport as Duke of Norfolk are respectively deafening and bulging-eyed. Fred Zinnemann directs with an overload of simple-mindedness. No greater proof of this than Leo McKern as Cromwell. Imagine the kind of aria he’d get at the Met. In Spherical, further cramping the economy production values. (Opening 2/15/1967 at the Esquire, running 28 weeks.)

Oscar wins: best picture, actor, director, adapted screenplay, color cinematography and costumes. Oscar nominations for best supporting actor (Robert Shaw) and supporting actress (Hiller).

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ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com 

Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.