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Film Friday: Fred Zinnemann's 'A Man For All Seasons' – Best Picture Oscar winner worth revisiting

By Daniel S Levine,

There have been 85 winners of the Best Picture Oscar. Many of them have become the most beloved movies of all time, like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind or On The Waterfront. Some have become contemporary classics, like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King or The Departed. But a few have been lost to obscurity, either because they just aren't good movies, they haven't stood the test of time or don't have any marquee names. One such winner that anyone rarely speaks of these days is 1966's A Man For All Seasons.

The film has more well-known names behind the camera than in front of it. It was directed by Fred Zinnemann, who had previously won an Oscar for From Here To Eternity and made the acclaimed Western High Noon. Robert Bolt, best known for collaborating with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter, wrote the film and the play on which it is based. These two talented men crafted an eloquent, moving film about one man's refusal to give up on his beliefs and Zinnemann drew incredible performances from an ensemble cast of top British actors.

Paul Scofield stars as Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England and a trusted adviser to King Henry VIII. But their friendship is tested when Henry (Robert Shaw) wants to get his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so he can marry Anne Boleyn. More, as a devoted Catholic, cannot sign Henry's letter to the Pope and refuses. Despite pressure from everywhere, including his own family, More refuses. He can't allow himself to sign if he doesn't believe what the text says.

Eventually, More decides to just not say anything. He won't sign and refuses to explain why – even though everyone already knows why. This silence particularly infuriates Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern), who is trying to maneuver his way up the ladder to replace More. Part of it is to show his devotion to the King, but it's clear that he takes More's unwavering stance personally.

1966 was really the year of the actor as both films that could have won Best Picture that year featured some incredible performances. A Man For All Seasons' top competition was Mike Nichols' first feature film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was nominated for 13 awards and won five. But Seasons ended up winning six, including Best Picture and Scofield beat Richard Burton for Best Actor. Bolt and Zinnemann also won for their work.

While Virginia Woolf is still a highly regarded film, Seasons could be seen as the stuffy historical drama that the Academy likes, but Seasons is actually very different. There is little actual action, in the typical sense of the word. Instead, the film is driven by powerful dialogue and speeches. Somehow Zinnemann keeps us from falling asleep for two hours.

Scofield's epic performance is what makes this film so powerful. One particular scene in which he truly shines is in the Tower of London, where he even refuses his family's request to give in. It's helped by touching performances from Wedny Hiller and Susannah York as More's wife and daughter. Keep an eye out for John Hurt's amazing performance in one of his first film roles.

What also makes Seasons a wonderful picture is its dedication to authenticity. The film looks like a moving Medieval painting. The actors even stand as if they are posing for a painter (particularly the scene where More is made Lord Chancellor). This is a prime example of how important production design is for a film, keeping the audience believing that they are actually watching events set in 16th Century England. It is not a glorious looking movie, but neither was England at the time.

On Home Video: A Man For All Seasons was released by Columbia Pictures and is now owned by Sony, a studio which has shown little regard for releasing its classics on Blu-ray itself. This movie was released on DVD in 2006 and hasn't been revisited since. The only bonus material on the disc is a 20-minute talking heads piece on the real More and doesn't cover anything about the film itself.

A Man For All Seasons deserves to be rediscovered. Many of Zinnemann's other films have been hailed as classics, just as this one should be. This is a film to enjoy for its wonderful acting and its inspiring story about a man who stuck to his conscious.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

image: Amazon

 
 

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