“A Man For All Seasons”, Again!
It is now more than four hundred years since the death of Queen Elizabeth the last reigning Tudor. And yet the Tudors continue to fascinate, and infuriate. We admire them. We deplore them. But we are never bored by them. And we sense ( I think) that had they done things differently, that our world would not have been quite the same. No one doubts the significance of the changes to religion in England that they made and importance that this had for Ireland.
No wonder then they and their servants are so frequently discussed- the most recent example being a play that depicts Anne Boleyn as a pioneer Euro- sceptic. And then of course there was been the success of Hilary Mantel’s novel about Thomas Cromwell “Wolf Hall”. ( which I haven’t read), as well as the two Cate Blanchet films- “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth, The Golden Age.”
This is no recent phenomena. In the forties and early fifties Margaret Irwin ( 1889-1969) produced a trilogy of novels about Queen Elizabeth the first of which was filmed. At about the same time Hester Chapman (1899-1976) made a literary career by writing about the Tudors1. In the seventies Lady Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots was compulsory reading.
The big one was Robert Bolt’s “A Man For All Seasons.” The history of this has been astonishing. It started on the radio in 1954, from whence it migrated to the television in 1957. Bolt ( 1924-1995) then turned it into a stage play and it was produced in London in 1960. The following year it went to Broadway- where it was a “huge hit.” It was then filmed in 1966, and filmed again in 1988. And incredibly it was performed again on the BBC radio in 2006!
Praise for it has been almost universal. Indeed had I realised the extent of this enthusiasm- and that mine was to be an almost lone critical voice- I should have written my first piece differently. While I would not have changed the gist of what I wrote about the film; I would have narrowed my focus. I was- I now see- mistaken to include in what I wrote criticisms More’s Utopia-2 as these deflected attention from what I really wanted to say about the film.
Consequently I welcome this opportunity of responding to Bovis not merely because it gives me another bite at the cherry, but because it allows me to say how much I welcome intervention the intervention by Bovis- as this is the just the sort of exchange between conservatives of slightly different kinds, which this web site is meant to provoke.
So what then my objection to the film3 of “A Man For All Seasons?” Lets start with the point that I made about the cause of Henry’s death. At the end of the film an apparently authoritative “voice over” announces that Henry died of syphilis when in fact he didn’t. This is a point which would surely have been easy enough to correct. My point here was not to suggest that I imagined that Henry was anything other than the sexual monster he was. My point was that the Bolt /Zinneman production cannot be trusted when it comes to the facts.4
And “A Man For all Seasons” is a film is which claims to be about history- and it has certainly succeeded in persuading many of its admirers that it is a “true story.” 5Although Bovis seems to take a different view when in his final sentence he says “Bolt is an artist not an historian and whatever he has done with the history the character [More] he has created for us is warm, wise and tragically enchanting.”
Here (I think) Bovis has gone wrong. The real question is not whether the More Bolt has created is enchanting or otherwise? The questions that we should be asking are whether the More that Bolt has created is the real More? Whether the Henry Bolt has shown us is the real Henry VIII? And above whether the film properly reflects what one historian has called the “ the astonishing continent wide scale of the business”6 – as if it does not then it must in my view be misleading. Of course some simplifications are necessary. For example in the French version of “A Man For All Seasons”, the meeting of the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury is described as being that of the whole of the Church of England. This is a perfectly proper change because to tell the facts as they were would confuse a French audience. But the errors I am complaining of both of commission and more especially of omission in the film are not of this technical nature. They go to the heart of Bolt’s presentation of the facts, and in my view they deeply undermine the credibility of the film.
I now regret not having somewhat extended my discussion f the film “Elizabeth The Golden Age” in my original piece because I believe it illuminates the failures of the Bolt Zinneman production on which Bovis and others are so keen.
“Elizabeth, the Golden Age”, deals with events- the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and the defeat of the Spanish Armada – which as on the leading historians of the period has written, took place “within a broader European context.”7 In this respect “Elizabeth the Golden Age” is similar to “A Man for All Seasons”, which deals with events which took place on- as we have seen- an “astonishing continent wide scale” but unlike the Bolt Zinneman production “Elizabeth the Golden Age” opens up a true window into the realities of the period of history it seeks to describe.
In making this comparison I’m not suggestion of course that “Elizabeth the Golden Age” is a perfect film. It too contains silly mistakes. There is, for example, the richly absurd moment in which it attributes words in fact spoken by Marshall Petain to Elizabeth.
Nor is its account of the Babington plot accurate, but except for the quotation from Petain, its inaccuracies and its exaggerations serve to reveal rather than hide historical realities. More importantly taken as a whole “Elizabeth the Golden Age” exemplifies how well suited the medium of film is to describing events remote from main action but which are at the same crucial to the story. It does this by cutting brilliantly from Spain, to Elizabeth’s court, to Fotheringhay Castle ( where Elizabeth’s rival Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned8), and to Spain in a way which reflects the history and advances the narrative.
And if “Elizabeth the Golden Age” can make Philip of Spain’s imperial ambitions clear I can see no reason why “A Man For All Seasons” should not be equally forthcoming about the activities of the Emperor Charles in Italy. In fact “A Man For All Seasons” hardly leaves London except to show us Wolsey’s death. But if the Bolt Zimmerman production could have leave London for Leicester- which is not crucial for the films action- then I can see no reason why it should not leave London for Rome where military and diplomatic action was taking place which was crucial to understanding the events with which the film deals.
It is the absolute centrality of this activity in Italy to the story which explains why I think that that Bovis is wrong to refer to such matters with the dismissive word phrase “whatever Bolt has done with history.” It may be possible to say: “Half a loaf is better than no bread” – but half a story- and especially this story- is no story- or rather it is propaganda.
But while I apparently disagree with Bovis about the importance of facts in a film ostensibly dealing with historical events I think he is quite right in saying that the great virtue of this film is the stress that it places on the rule of law. This struck me when I saw the play in the sixties. And it still impresses me. There are some great lines on this theme in the film. And I am glad that Bovis has quoted them. But here again the film is partial in its understanding. The rule of law is not just about laws that apply to everybody, but about having impartial tribunals to apply these laws when- as often happens- there are disputes about them.
In the film More is an eloquent spokesman for the law, and for importance of the state obeying its own rules for the interpretation of evidence and so forth. So far so good. But what the play does not even hint at so far as I can see is that Henry was being asked to submit his case- which involved the stability of the realm and his own happiness- to a court which was flagrantly biased against him for political reasons.
The crucial point here is that the Pope Clement did not have freedom of action. In this instance one of the parties in the dispute namely Catherine enjoyed an overwhelming advantage because her nephew the emperor Charles V had the pope and his cardinals under his thumb. Froude puts it clearly:
“To ask a pope such a time to give mortal offence to the Spanish nation by agreeing to the divorce of Catherine of Aragon was to ask him to sign his death- warrant ”9
And this seems to have been no exaggeration. Sir John Russel an English diplomat travelling through Italy reported that the Imperial troops:-
“had committed horrible atrocities. They had burnt houses…with all the churches, images, and priests that fell into their hands. They had compelled the priests and monks to violate the nuns. Even when they were received without opposition they had burnt the place; they had not spared the boys, and they carried off the girls; and wherever they found the Sacrament of the church they had thrown it into a river or into the vilest place they could find.”10
And what does Bovis- this great lover of all things Italian say about this?-
“Miller accuses More of hypocrisy when he is shocked by Wolsey’s suggestion of putting pressure on the church in order to get the annulment.11 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 !” [emphasis and punctuation supplied]
Well, well, I never did hear…If raping nuns and buggering choir boys is part of even the most “robust diplomacy” ( to quote another Bovis’ choice offerings on the subject) then we must be thankful that Bovis is not employed by The Department of Foreign Affairs! Seriously any threats which Wolsey made to church property in England were mild compared with those implied by the Emperor’s storm troopers in Italy. The truth is that Henry couldn’t project power into central Italy but Charles could. And guess who got what he wanted? In the absence of a suitably positioned aircraft carrier there wasn’t a lot Henry could do12. And yet for Bolt and Bovis it was only Wolsey and Henry who seem to have lifted so much as a finger to influence the Pope!13
Just one final thought:-
Bovis gets all weak kneed about More’s final statement on the scaffold:-
“I do none harm, I say none harm14, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live.”
This may make good theatre both then and now; but it must have sounded a bit hollow to the relations of those who in another of Bovis’ lapidary phrases More had “brought to the public hangman.”
In truth though, this a fine film with lots of good things in it. But it is provides too partial an account of the events with which it deals to be included in any list of great movies.