A Man For All Seasons

There aren’t really many “must see” movies. We all have our favorites, of course, and we’ve all said “oh, you have to see this movie”. But really, no, you don’t have to, in most cases. You could, and you’d be glad you did more often than not. But there just aren’t really many movies you must see.

This one, you must.

I mean, what could be more relevant to our day than a movie about a man who values his beliefs and conscience more than his very life? Add the fact that it’s beautifully filmed piece of cinema, and brilliantly acted, and you have yourself a classic.

Sir Thomas More (St. Thomas More, for the Catlicks among us) was the Lord Chancellor of England back in the days of Henry VIII (you know, the crazy one that killed all those wives). Being the Lord Chancellor of England in those days was roughly analogous to being Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, and John Roberts all wrapped up into one. Our saint had the ear and the trust of King Henry, and he was smarter. But he also had the courage of his convictions, and this was his downfall.

Long story short, Henry wanted to divorce his wife Catherine and marry another woman. He had to have the Church’s permission, and couldn’t get the Pope to grant him the annulment needed to make his move. So Henry decided that he would be the head of the Church, and told the Pope, essentially, to go to hell.

Now, I know all my good Protestant readers are thinking at this point “Hey, good for him!” First of all, shame on you. Second of all, hold your horses, it gets worse.

Henry then proceeded to pass a law saying that anyone who wouldn’t swear an oath agreeing with the idea of his supremacy over the Church would be guilty of treason.

St. Thomas wouldn’t sign. He wouldn’t speak out against the King, out of loyalty and patriotism, but neither would he put his name to an oath that he didn’t believe in it. Henry had him thrown in the Tower of London for a year, made him endure a show trial, then executed him despite the fact Thomas was more loyal to him than any thousand that signed the Oath of Supremacy.

It’s a great movie. Paul Scofield is absolutely brilliant as Sir Thomas. The late Robert Shaw perfectly balances the combination of political acumen and utter madness of Henry. A very young-looking John Hurt is great as the weasly Richard Rich. The trial scene is priceless, as is the farewell scene between Sir Thomas and his family in the Tower. There’s also a great speech about the primacy of law in a civilized society that should be memorized by schoolchildren along with the preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Could we even have a man like St. Thomas in our society? If we did, isn’t it likely he’d suffer the same fate?

I don’t mean he’d get his head chopped off – he’d be more likely to suffer a 21st century style martyrdom. The kind where the popular media flays one alive and leaves one to twist slowly in the wind of public opinion.

More to the point, if we had a St. Thomas in our midst, what are the chances he’d even want to be involved in politics? In Thomas’s day, it was honorable to serve the king, even if the King was a stark raving looney. Not that there weren’t power-hungry opportunists back then, of course (Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, for instance, in the context of AMFAS). These days, I don’t know if the word “honor” has been applied to anyone in the executive branch in a couple of generations. I can’t think of anyone in my day, right off the bat. Can you?

I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who said having the desire to be President automatically disqualifies one for the job. It’s a shame too, because if there’s anything we need today, it’s a whole passel of Thomas Mores to help us out of the mess we’ve voted ourselves into.

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