Fred Zinnemann’s perfectly pitched bio-pic, from Robert Bolt’s hagiographic play on Sir Thomas More standing on religious principle against Henry VIII, is just the sort of Oscar®-bait, award-sweeping, middlebrow Film-of-Quality (to use the old Cahiers du Cinéma pejorative) guaranteed to drive any self-respecting genre-oriented auteurist critic/academic to distraction . . . and blind them to it’s very real value. It was certainly no sure thing when Zinnemann signed on. Coming off an intriguing flop (BEHOLD A PALE HORSE/’64) and a couple of canceled projects, given a bare-bones 2 mill budget on a talky Tudor-era play, he then insisted on a cast with zero box-office appeal (mostly unknowns, newbies & theater stars). The film came in without an ounce of fat on it, all the better (and more handsome) for its simplicity. (Example: that marvelous Hampton Court exterior? A couple of painted flats from production designer John Box at £5000.) Yet, Zinnemann claimed the quality of cast & crew made this his easiest shoot ever. And if Paul Scofield occasionally betrays his long stage run as Sir Thomas, he’s more or less untouchable in the part. Has there ever been an actor with such control of dynamics? The tone he gets after wife Wendy Hiller tells him how she hates him for his unwavering moral stance, and he replies, ‘But you mustn’t,’ is simply unforgettable. Or Robert Shaw’s terrifying high moods as Henry; Orson Welles showing the power of color coordination as a red-robed Cardinal Wolsey in a barely furnished red room. (Where did they dig up Vincente Minnelli’s signature tint?) Above-and-beyond contributions from cinematographer Ted Moore, with a sprinkling of Hans Holbein as needed, and Georges Delerue’s propulsive score, a major player right from the credits. And if Bolt’s play never was quite as fine as once thought, too much the schoolboy crush on a flawless teacher (A MAN FOR ALL SEMESTERS?), it’s now easily balanced via Hilary Mantel’s stunning retell in WOLF HALL where this film’s villain, Thomas Cromwell, gets his fascinating and not unsympathetic due.* Even here, with Leo McKern playing the part, such a sly villainous touch, you sense Bolt knew things he left out.*
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Bolt also left out an ‘everyman’ character from the play, a foil, part guide, part questioner/ commentator who shows up in various guises. He was kept in a tv movie version w/ Charlton Heston & Vanessa Redgrave (briefly seen here in a cameo as Anne Boleyn).
READ ALL ABOUT IT/DOUBLE-BILL: *Mantel’s WOLF HALL covers the same part of Cromwell’s life under Henry VIII and goes pretty tough on More, convincingly so. Seen on PBS in three parts, it’s very somber, the book far more enjoyable.