Adaptation of Robert Bolt's play about Sir Thomas More, a Catholic statesman in England who rebelled against Henry VIII's self-proclaimed status as the head of the Church of England and paid for his religious beliefs by having his head exhibited on London Bridge.
Robert Bolt's successful play was not considered a hot commercial property by Columbia Pictures--a period piece about a moral issue without a star, without even a love story. Perhaps that's why Columbia left director Fred Zinnemann alone to make A Man for All Seasons, as long as he stuck to a relatively small budget. The results took everyone by surprise, as the talky morality play became a box-office hit and collected the top Oscars for 1966. At the play's heart is the standoff between King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw, in young lion form) and Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield, in an Oscar-winning performance). Henry wants More's official approval of divorce, but More's strict ethical and religious code will not let him waffle. More's rectitude is a source of exasperation to Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles in a cameo), who chides, "If you could just see facts flat on without that horrible moral squint." Zinnemann's approach is all simplicity, and indeed the somewhat prosaic staging doesn't create a great deal of cinematic excitement. But the language is worth savoring, and the ethical politics are debated with all the calm and majesty of an absorbing chess game. --Robert Horton