Directed By: Charlton Heston
Starring: Charlton Heston, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud
Tag line: "Three of Hollywood's Greatest Stars in a Triumphant New Production"
Trivia: This was the last film Roy Kinnear completed before his death
A few months after I first saw the 1990 made-for-television movie, Treasure Island, which starred Charlton Heston as Long John Silver, I decided to check out another TV film featuring the same actor, an updated adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons (which Heston also directed). And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s as strong as the Award-winning 1966 picture, this version certainly has its charms.
Sir Thomas More (Heston) is a well-respected statesman, a noted scholar, and a loyal subject and friend of King Henry VIII (Martin Chamberlain). But when King Henry, who is desperate for a male heir, divorces Queen Katherine so that he can marry Anne Boleyn, it causes a rift between him and Thomas More that resonates throughout all of England. Unwilling to accept the King’s new marriage, Sir Thomas resigns his position as Lord High Chancellor, and refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to the Church of England (which establishes the King, and not the Pope, as head of the country’s church). Yet, in spite of his feelings, Sir Thomas is careful not to make any statements that could be construed as treasonable, and on the subject of the marriage to Anne Boleyn, he says nothing; not to his wife, Alice (Vanessa Redgrave), his daughter, Margaret (Adrienne Thomas), or his good friend, the Duke of Norfolk (Richard Johnson). Anxious to obtain Sir Thomas’ blessing, King Henry charges his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell (Benjamin Whitrow), with the task of either convincing More to change his mind, or, if need be, bring him to trial on a charge of high treason, an offense that’s punishable by death.
Heston is good as Sir Thomas More, conveying both the man’s intelligence and his strength of character, and he’s surrounded himself with a fine supporting cast, including Redgrave, Johnson, Whitrow, Sir John Gielgud (appearing briefly as Cardinal Wolsey), and Jonathan Hackett (as Richard Rich, a man so eager for a position of power that he’s willing to do anything to obtain it). But the most interesting character in 1988’s A Man for All Seasons is one that doesn’t appear in the 1966 film: that of the Common Man. Played exceptionally well by Roy Kinnear, the Common Man serves as the movie’s narrator, while also appearing in a number of minor roles, including Thomas More’s house servant, a boatman, a Jailer, and so on. Addressing the audience directly, the Common Man keeps us abreast of what’s going on, while also interjecting some much-needed humor. As strong as this film’s super-star cast is, Kinnear manages to steal nearly every scene he’s in.
While I still consider director Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons the definitive film version of Bolt’s Play, Heston and company do a good enough job with the material to make this an entertaining, thought-provoking watch.