Has cinema ever offered a more noble character than Thomas More? Often first considered as a saint, theologian, scholar, philosopher, or simply as a historical figure, in A Man For All Seasons he is the hero. Yet rarely has an hero been of such great intellect, wit, austerity, faith, and outright cleverness. A Man For All Seasons, though, is not about Henry VIII’s court intrigues, 16th century politics, or issues of Catholic theology, rather it is about one man’s unwillingness to compromise his most sacred beliefs.
The greatest irony, though, is that while More dies in the end, he unquestionably dominates each and every scene. Not only is More a man of profound scholarship, but his scholarship is ever on the tip of his tongue, and what a sharp tongue it is! Early in the film when an aging Cardinal Wolsey attempts to compliment More’s logic and attention detail by telling him he should have been a cleric, More replies, “Like yourself, Your Grace?” In the simplest, and most defensible, of replies More has cut to the heart of the issue, which is that Wolsey is more politician than priest, that his first allegiance is in fact to King Henry and not to God. More did not have to say this overtly nor did he have explicitly to condemn Wolsey for planning to pressure the church with land confiscation and taxation, but in explaining his machinations Wolsey left himself open to the criticism. Yet Wolsey was used to dealing with the Machiavellian Cromwell and his like who would discuss such deceits freely, and not More, who for his intractable stance Wolsey urges to, “come down to Earth.”
Yet it is More’s profound intelligence and erudition which puts the bite in his wit. He has great knowledge not only of the law, his trade, but also of philosophy and theology. Education is of extreme importance to More, who calls it a “precious commodity” when his devoted but simple wife asks why he does not beat his daughter and he replies that it would, “beat the education out of her.” Also, instead of offering Master Richard Rich one of the political appointments he so desires, he repeatedly encourages him to take up a teaching position. Yet Rich is himself not uneducated and early on he quotes Aristotle, saying that if a man raises his status in life it is because he was born into one too low for him. This brings the room in More’s home to silence, since it is clear that Rich does not use his education for any noble humanistic or spiritual purpose, but rather as a tool to advance his political status. He selectively uses his education to justify his desire for power. Likewise, King Henry has a great knowledge of theological matters, but he chooses to use it simply for his convenience. Like Rich, Henry is not using his intellect to discover the natural and transcendental laws in order to live justly, but rather to “discover” only those which allow him to live as he wishes. Henry is able to quote ancient scripture in Leviticus to try to explain why his marriage to Catherine was in fact not a marriage (because she was the widow of Henry’s brother), but he conveniently disregards the fact that pope has authority in the matter, authority that cannot be put aside when inconvenient. Even More’s hotheaded son-in-law is guilty of this crime of convenience, albeit to a lesser degree. The young William Roper, disgusted with the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church, apostatized and became a passionate Lutheran. While he realized that certain portions of the church and certain practices needed reform, he neglected to realize that, for people of the Catholic faith, there are portions that cannot ever be forsaken. When Roper again changes his mind and returns to the church, More replies, “We must just pray that when your head's finished turning your face is to the front again.” Yet while we are sure he means this wholeheartedly, we also know More understands that Roper’s changes of heart are due more to the enthusiasm of youth than to any malice like that of Cromwell.
Indeed it is ultimately Cromwell who is charged by Henry with the task of bringing down More, and the task is ultimately a contest of legal understanding. In this contest More is unquestionably better armed. He has taken every precaution, never voicing an explicitly dissenting opinion so no one can testify against him, forbidding others from saying treasonous things to him so he cannot be found guilty by association, even retaining second (and witnessed) copies of letters to make sure he cannot be misquoted. While More has refused to sign a document declaring legal the marriage of King Henry and Anne Boleyn because the document also declared that the pope had not the authority in the matter, he also refused to say why he would not sign it. There was nothing anyone could do to More, in the name of the law, anyway. All anyone could allege is that he would not sign it, which is of course not a crime. More had cloaked himself in the laws of the land and the only ways Henry and Cromwell could get to him were by tearing down those laws. In one of the film’s greatest lines More says to the naïve Roper, when the young man says he would tear down any law to imprison the devil,
And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted 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 wind that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake.When More is walking home from being questioned by Cromwell and having ended his friendship with Norfolk a great wind blows. The laws are about to be cut.
Yet even with all of their political power Henry and Cromwell cannot bring down Thomas by themselves. Henry is still allegedly constrained by his conscience, which makes perjuring himself or torturing Thomas out of the question. Cromwell himself is too high up the poll directly to do anything as it would be too obvious a crime. They need someone flexible, someone unknown, someone who can be bought and they find that in Richard Rich. Make no mistake either, Rich knows precisely the character of the man he is dealing with in getting involved with Cromwell, which is why he so desperately courted the favor of Thomas, “If only you knew how much, much rather, I had your help than his.” Yet Thomas, perceiving Rich’s weakness, tries to encourage him toward a life where he will not be tempted by riches and fame. Yet we know the venal Rich will take the bait when he replies to mores offer, “If I was [ a teacher], who would know it?” More, whose life centers around his faith, family, and friends,replies, “You! Your pupils. Your friends.” After Rich has taken Cromwell’s bribe and comments how he has just lost his innocence, Cromwell, who also knows Rich’s weakness and that in his heart Rich was always willing to sell himself, says, “Some time ago. Have you only just noticed?"
In the final courtroom scene More’s wit and intellect is in full form, although he is physically too weak to stand, having deteriorated in jail for months. Of course he is in full form, though. You see, More has already understood the entire matter from the very beginning. He spent his whole life studying the law and theology, he knew the natures of the people he was dealing with and he had all of the facts. As such, he was able to consider every possible permutation of the events and he knew, ultimately, that they would have to break the law to get at him. He just did not know how. He continues to outwit Cromwell when the minister attempts to persuade the jury that More’s silence must be construed as opposition and More reminds the court that the legal precept is qui tacet consentire, meaning in fact that if Thomas’ silence is to be construed at all, it must be construed as consent, not dissent. More also reminds the court that while they may think they know his opinion, that his opinion is not a matter of fact or record and thus is not proven. He says, “The world must construe according to its wits. This court must construe according to the law.”
What More was not able to fathom, though, was just how low Rich was willing to stoop for power and glory. To Thomas it is truly an unconscionable betrayal Rich has perpetrated. Here he is about to be executed for following his convictions and there stands Rich, well dressed and well fed, rewarded for betraying his. The betrayal is indeed a betrayal of self more than of friend and country. With great disappointment and sadness More tells Rich, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, but for Whales?” It is More’s self and soul that he goes to death to protect. Far from selling it as Rich did, he could not even tarnish it for the friendship of Norfolk, the affection of his daughter, or the love of his wife. It causes great pain to Thomas when he has to end his friendship with Norfolk “for friendship’s sake.” Of course they are not real enemies, but they had to have a show of a fight to give the appearance that they are so. Norfolk in fact laughs quite happily as More makes an ass of Cromwell in court.
Yet the worst wounds are inflicted by the losses of his wife and daughter and the fact that he was about to die without them really understanding why he had to. At their last meeting he looks at Margaret with both joy and sadness, joy that she inherited his love of knowledge, keen intellect, and his “moral squint,” but sadness because she is still too young to understand as she tries to guilt her father into capitulating by wounding him in saying how the family does not read any longer in the evening since they have no candles. This is a triple wound for Thomas, since it represents not only the deterioration of his family, but also the deterioration of its intellectual life and that it is his fault too. His wife, Alice, thoroughly does not understand and while she is devout in her faith she is unschooled and, in fact, illiterate. Yet her final gesture to her husband is one of great love as she says, “And if any one wants to know my opinion of the King and his Council he only has to ask for it!” As her husband is to be murdered for his beliefs, she would gladly share hers if it would get her killed along with him. Yet it is as King Henry admitted, that it is because Thomas More is not only honest, but known to be honest that his opinion matters. Hers, as a woman and an uneducated one at that, does not. (Although Thomas tells Alice, Margaret, and Roper to flee the country anyway, fearing they may be executed just to ensure the affair is finished once and for all.) Yet to his death Thomas goes, untainted and untarnished, to protect his innermost self, that “single sinew that serves no appetite,” that most unique part created by God and that loves only God.