It has come to my attention that my taste in film has been questioned. Indeed my taste in film has been found wanting. Richard Miller of EBI fame has given quite the ticking off to one of my favourite films in the form of A Man for All Seasons and one of my favourite people in the person of St. Thomas Moore.
Now I don’t want to be mean.
Times are tough for the theologically high, liturgically low, no-popery here Anglo-Catholic. As he sits at his Sheraton escritoire, looking out from the Queen Anne rectory at the tidy lines of plantation beech, he silently laments the passing of the ancient certainties. Of course the certainties are not so ancient, going back at most to the sixteenth century when the Welsh dynasty forced the English to abandon a thousand years of traditional religion for the fancy new ideas coming out of Germany.
Bolt and Zimmerman are accused of failing to understand the dreadful dilemma of Henry. The nation had been riven and traumatised by a century of warfare. It was only now recovering from the depredations of the warring barons. His father had succeeded in building up the treasury and had allowed trade to expand and flourish. But all this was up for grabs as his wife, aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, had failed to give him a male heir. Since the civil wars of Stephen and Maud the idea of a regnant Queen was greeted with horror in England. If the country was to be kept at peace and the dynasty to survive, he needed a wife who could give him a live male heir. Bolt portrays Henry as a deeply unsympathetic character Mr Miller asserts, denying him any real psychological insight.
Of course the real problem is that Bolt is too soft on the Tudor. Fine he didn’t die of syphilis, is that really the best we can say of him? He was a monster, who lived and died a slave to his gross appetites. He burnt Protestants with just as much élan as his elder daughter would, and only his only connection with convinced Protestantism was the one with adulterous harlot and witch he put away his wife to marry.
Henry far from being played as the monster he was, is shown as a man of ego and quick temper, full of life and passion, if dangerously unpredictable.
The film observes that there are things he will not do. He refuses to allow Moore to be put to the rack. Moore is made to tell Cromwell that If he thinks the King will perjure himself then he does not yet know the King. The King will not swear an oath on the holy Bible which he knows to be untrue. It is clear that Henry recognises goodness and honesty in Moore and that is why he so desperately desires his approval over all others.
Miller accuses Moore of hypocrisy when he is shocked by Wolsey’s suggestion of putting pressure on the Church in order to get the annulment. He points out that all the characters had their lobbyists in Rome trying to spin the Vatican. Fine, but there is a difference between diplomacy and extorting with menaces.
The heart of the Moore character in the play and film is not Moore saint, scholar or family man though he is all of these. The play is about Moore the lawyer. Again and again the leit-motif of the piece is that only the law can protect us from the caprices of the powerful, sometimes the devil, sometimes the King. This is the conservative heart of the work. Over centuries we build up rules and customs and laws that lean upon each other. Individually they may be weak but woven together they are strong against the storm of state power.
Near the end he reproves Cromwell for threatening like a dock yard bully, rather than Chancellor of England.
Sir Thomas More: You threaten like a dockside bully.
Cromwell: How should I threaten?
Sir Thomas More: Like a minister of state. With justice.
Cromwell: Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.
Sir Thomas More: Then I am not threatened.
Then I am not threatened. Moore persists in his belief or hope that the law can save him. It is only when it is plain that all hope is lost and the verdict and sentence have been procured that he finally unburdens himself regarding the marriage. The warning is clear, when the state for any reason or pretence puts itself above or beyond the law then the state is no longer legitimate. And of course no longer safe.
In a state where the law is the tool of the party, as it was in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and Mao’s China then there can be no freedom. In this state we survive or die at the whim of the petty official. Merely doing right is no longer enough to protect us and keep us safe.
Sir Thomas More: I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live.
What shocks Moore is not the notion of robust diplomacy but that the laws of England, Magna Carta and the Kings coronation oath would be trampled or ignored.
Remember Moore ,like all the characters, is of the Middle Ages. This stuff of about the Renaissance is merely a creation of French Deists and I would be disappointed to discover that Mr Miller swallowed it. The renaissance is the middle ages with better painting, worse theology and no philosophy.
For Thomas the role of the church in the life f the nation and in society is beyond question. He may satirise nuns and priests but the institution of the Church is like oxygen in a water molecule. Also the idea of the papacy being something foreign is a wholly novel and rather odd idea to Medieval Man. The Pope is in Rome. Where the heck should he be??? Not Avignon anyway. The Pope is Pope by virtue of being Bishop of Rome, his nationality is a matter of indifference to an inhabitant of Christendom.
Then we come to the most predictable of the slings and arrows our latter day Lattimer would lose off. That the author of Utopia was a proto-commie and all round weirdo. One of the characteristics that separate us moderns from the likes of Moore and Fisher is our capacity to live with cognitive dissonance. Modern man has at any host of conflicting and contradictory idea and propositions swirling around in his head at any one time. This can cause inaction or a head ache but mostly we don’t even notice.
However the notion that a man as famously orthodox as Thomas could have simultaneously believed in the superior morals of his No Place is not credible. Anyway, who has ever read Utopia and come away thinking, “whoa nice place, love to holiday there”? It is plainly a nasty anthill of a country. To me the most obvious way to understand the book is a critique of pure rationality.
This is the very best outcome we can expect in a world without Revelation and tradition. This is what Moore imagines a world with Christ, the Church and Scripture would be like. Moore was no commie; he was good London lad from a family of lawyers with a house in Chelsea. Tell me if that sounds like a Labour voter?
The movie may have its faults but the universally wonderful acting from a terrific cast cover them up to my eyes. I have watched it so many times and still I am so moved by the last meeting with his family in the tower, especially the fight with the Lady Alice. The scenes of the trial cannot fail to thrill even the most jaded Lutheran.
As for the man himself? Well his life was not perfect, certainly to the modern eye. He persecuted and prosecuted those who were afflicted with the German enthusiasm. Some he even brought to the public hangman.
But martyrs are so not for the life they lived but the death they endured. And maybe it is here that Bolt is at his weakest. For in the play Moore dies for his personal conscience, for his sense of himself. As he says to his daughter in the tower
‘ When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then-he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.’
I have always been a little skepical of this motivation, it strikes as the courage of a modern man. But maybe that’s not harm, Bolt is an artist not a historian and whatever he may have done with the history the character he has created for us is warm, wise and tragically enchanting.