Conviction. It is what separates great men from everyone else. The strength to do what is right when everyone else tells you it’s wrong, the bravery to stand up not only in opposition to enemies, but also friends and the gumption to remain steadfast even at the cost of what you love. There are few with strong, lasting conviction, few who will not bend at the prevailing wind.
Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is such a man of conviction. When King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) seeks to get a divorce so he can marry one of his mistresses, Thomas refuses to consent to the divorce, believing it is wrong and against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. And even though Thomas flourishes for a while, gaining higher honors, receiving flattery from the right tongues, he remains steadfast in his conviction.
With the inevitable downturn, Thomas is placed under the greatest pressures; friends and family tell him to give in to the king’s desire. Others seek to elicit him to say something against the king, to catch him in a trap. On every side is the temptation to take the easy way out, to cave in, to lose control, to give up conviction for what is easy and what is pleasing to those in power.
And while More is a man of great conviction, he’s also a great man. His steadfast adherence to his duty as a judge, refusing bribes and holding himself, above all, to the letter of the law, shows his great discipline. He’s also a gracious man, extending and helping those beneath it, even when they may not fully understand the way in which he seeks to save people from their own pride and foolishness.
He’s also a man of great words. A Man for All Seasons is based on a play by Robert Bolt which he adapted to the screen. He crafts each exchange, each scene with precise and powerful dialogue, a play of wits and words bounce back and forth between people in many a scene.
Where Bolt proves himself a great writer is that he knows when to embrace silence, when it’s best for nothing to be said and to let the images talk. But even more than simply embracing the imagery of film, the film embraces that sometimes standing up for the right thing also means keeping silent from saying the wrong things, from lowering your demeanor and words to slander, hatred and malice.
Thomas’ conviction is both religious and legal, someone who believes both in the sovereignty of God and the strength of the law. Man is called to something better than this, something beyond the squalor and fancies of a spoiled king. And there are some things men should be willing to live and to die for, against country and king if necessary.
A decent man can be good when food is on the table, friends are all around, and the spring of life is in full bloom. But it takes a great man to be good when the winter of life arrives, when greeted with gray, empty halls and left alone, rejected by those who once ate at your table. To remain strong and true during such a time is truly what it means to be a man for all seasons.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing