“Oh, confound all this. I’m not a scholar, I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not but dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship?”
“And when we die and you are sent to Heaven for doing your conscience and I am sent to Hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
– A Man for All Seasons
Truth is that while fairy tales (not of the gruesome original variety, the Disney-fied kind) like to depict people getting rewarded for sticking to their principles, quite often the blessing one gets for standing by one’s standards, ideals, and beliefs is a public flogging, or worse. And the measure of our character is whether we will endure the blacklisting, loss of status, loss of friends, back-against-the-wall-ness of it all with dignity and come out with our convictions still in place.
And so! A Man for All Seasons is required viewing. Paul Scofield gives a a subtle but brilliant performance of a man who managed to be both conflicted and steady and who ultimately decides to stand by his faith, but more importantly his conscience. The movie could easily have been a trite morality play, but it isn’t. It’s as complex as the idea of conscience and morality itself.
The story is set during one of the most tumultuous centuries for faith and conflict in Western history and England. Henry VIII has thrown over Katherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, and the Catholic Church for one of his own making. None of which sits right Sir Thomas More (Scofield) who, quietly but firmly, says he cannot change his religious beliefs to suit even a king, cannot change his legal opinion to flout the law, and will not go against his conscience even to save his life.
I do not mistake this film for history. The historical Thomas More was a Catholic zealot who saw six “heretics” burned to death under his administration as Lord Chancellor, but he was also a humanist who thought women were just as academically capable as men and gave his daughters the same classical education as his sons. I don’t mind the simplified, or rather focused, view of a certain part of his life, historical accuracy isn’t the point of this film. A man having his friends, protectors, and even household turn against him, while he sticks to his moral guns is.
Ideals are seldom complex and people never are. More defends bad laws made by men because the universal concept of Law gives protection, he encourages humility to an ambitious friend while being named Lord Chancellor, he insults another friend to keep him distant in order to protect him from the political fallout of being friends with a “traitor,” and argues for justice at his unfair and mock trial.
Moral of the story: decide what you hold dear, and defend it. Even if it costs you.