*. A biopic, based on a hit play, on the fall of Thomas More (Sir or Saint), but I want to start with Richard Rich. The twentieth-century historian Hugh-Trevor Roper once said of Rich that he was a man “of whom nobody has ever spoken a good word.” Can I be the first?
*. The real Richard Rich, in so far as we can tell, appears to have been a bad piece of work. But in Robert Bolt’s play, of which this film is a pretty faithful adaptation, he’s something even worse. As played by John Hurt he’s not just treacherous but a wimp and a fool. He’s also stuck dramatically perjuring himself, which is something he may not have been guilty of, and all for what? For Wales! Then to have his name adopted by one of the most revolting comic-book characters of all time. This is a harsh fate, even if his dying peacefully in bed is the ironic coda the film leaves us with.
*. I don’t know how much the real Rich deserves all this. As a character in A Man for All Seasons, however, I felt quite sympathetic toward him. He’s just a guy reduced to begging for a job and he gets openly mocked by a sanctimonious prig (that would be More) for being a scheming climber. Which he actually isn’t at that point — he still wants to do the right thing. Do we despise climbers that much? We shouldn’t. Rich is playing a dirty game, but so is everyone else. A court is a disgusting place, and I use the present tense because they are very much still with us. Think of the circle of flatterers who surround a powerful political figure, or the entourage or posse of a celebrity. So don’t hate the player, hate the game. Or, if you’re like me, hate both equally.
*. I called More a sanctimonious prig, which tells you what I think of him. Look, Paul Scofield is wonderful. But Pauline Kael put her finger on the problem: “The weakness is that though Bolt’s dialogue is crisp, lucid, and well-spoken, his presentation of More’s martyrdom is so one-sided we don’t even get to understand that side. More is the only man of honor in the movie, and he’s got all the good lines; he’s the kind of hero we read about in biographies of great men written for 12-year-olds, and Scofield is so refined, so controlled, so dignified, so obviously ‘subtle’ he’s like a man of conscience in a school play.”
*. As for how much such a character reflects the real Thomas More, my sense is very little. As I’ve said, anyone attached to a court is tainted by it. Was More a defender of freedom of conscience? Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall had a very different take, on both More and Cromwell. And here’s Joanne Paul writing in History Today: “The actual More’s entire intellectual enterprise was aimed at opposing the concept of individual conscience, which he took to be a sign of pride. To advance one’s own ideas against the Church, the community of Christian believers both alive and dead, threatened to rip Christendom apart. God spoke through consensus and this led to unity in the Church. For the historical More, what matters is not that he believes something, but that the Church does.
*. Fred Zinneman’s direction, which he won an Oscar for, is, to my eye, indistinguishable from that of anyone tasked with one of these historical costume dramas. David Thomson: “He had all the disposable qualities: diligence instead of imagination; more care than instinct; solemnity but no wit.” He did make one great movie though, about another morally upright man in a terrible jam, and I thought the “disposable qualities” Thomson mentions worked well in The Day of the Jackal. Isn’t the Jackal a diligent, careful, and solemn workman too?
*. It’s a great cast, but aside from Scofield and Hurt I found them all disappointing. Orson Welles looks like a wheezing fat tomato in his clerical robes. Leo McKern is an evil Rumpole as Thomas Cromwell. Robert Shaw, one of my favourite actors, has little to do as Henry VIII. It’s a role with no depth. Nigel Davenport is given more lines, but nothing more to say. Vanessa Redgrave is Anne Boleyn for a few seconds of screen time. She’d be back in a similar vehicle as Mary, Queen of Scots.
*. I think I first saw this film when I was twelve years old. Meaning, by Kael’s calculation, I was the perfect age for it. This may be why it’s always stuck with me. Today it doesn’t seem like much of anything at all. I think the only one of these royal romps I still really enjoy is The Lion in Winter. But I think this is good for kids, and it does harken back nostalgically today to a time when such moral lessons were taken seriously. We’ve come a long way, living in Richard Rich’s world.