Once in a while in the past, English films, like this one and Chariots of Fire, have unexpectedly swept Oscars with their simple, atmospheric, well-acted storylines. In 1966, this film deservedly won for best picture (the most tightly 2 hr. Oscar winner I can recall), best actor (the splendid big-screen debut of Paul Scofield) and best director (respected American veteran Fred Zinnemann of tightly edited High Noon fame).
If I was to list my top 5 of celebrated films illustrating the individual vs. society, Robert Bolt’s highly successful play and film script would easily make the cut. Sir Thomas More’s (1478-1535) struggle with Henry VIII about whether to mindlessly/conventionally take Henry’s oath proclaiming the latter head of the church in England and giving him the right to annul his marriage and marry Anne Boleyn, his mistress, is a significant memorable conflict that happened in real time in early English history.
Everything about the film, every frame, every sound, every piece of music, every bit of dialogue serves Bolt’s and Zinnemann’s purposes producing a very entertaining, concise, to-the-point film. The supporting cast is excellent with scene-stealing moments by a young John Hurt as the traitorous Richard Rich, Leo McKern as a nasty right-hand man of Henry, Robert Shaw as the Trumpian Henry VIII, Orson Welles as the conflicted all-knowing first Roman Catholic Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey (before More), Susannah York as More’s daughter, and Vanessa Redgrave in a memorable speechless debut as Boleyn.
This is also a fascinating study of faith, power, conflicting positions, and the centrality of language in defining one’s life. Spoiler: More ends/ended up being executed and was later canonized by his church into a saint in 1935. His story and how he ended up as he did are nicely and faithfully documented by A Man for All Seasons. ps/ There is also a good little documentary filling in other details of More’s life on this recommended Columbia disc.