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A Man for All Seasons

DVD

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

"If you could just see facts flat-on, without that horrible moral squint," laments Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) of Thomas More. It's one of writer Robert Bolt's best lines in a witty, erudite script, and it's also a description of what the world thinks is wrong with More, a steadfast Catholic who refuses to fly the flag of convenience in A Man for All Seasons.

More, as some will remember, was beheaded by Henry VIII for treason-specifically, refusing to approve publicly of Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Bolt, writing the play that the opulent 1966 Fred Zinneman film is based on, tells the story as a classical tragedy, with More its hero. The movie is rated G and there's not an offensive thing in it, though kids will probably find its emphasis on wordplay and character kind of boring.

In More (played impeccably by Paul Scofield), Bolt finds a character who can turn the idea of the tragic flaw on its head; his loyalty to the last letter of the law may destroy his mortal body, but it reinforces his soul and gives him the strength to bear the slow closing of the trap laid around him by Henry's catspaws-chiefly Thomas Cromwell (a wonderful Leo McKern).

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But while More can see everything in black and white, Bolt takes pains to show us how gray the world looks to people around him. The writing here is so good that it's easy to find yourself agreeing with one of More's foils right up until More tells him what's wrong with his argument.

In particular, there's Will Roper, a fervent (if excitable) Christian who thinks it's his personal duty to bend the world to God's will. "What would you do," More asks him, "cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?" And when Will gives him a hearty affirmative, More lets him have it: "When the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?"

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