Nice weekend weather, but if you’re looking for an evening movie, you might want to check out A Man For All Seasons, which is available on demand at Turner Classic Movies right now and probably for the next week or so.
The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1966. The film is a historically accurate depiction of Thomas More’s resistance to the break of the English church from Rome in the 1500’s. I like it in part because I went to a Catholic high school in Milwaukee that bears More’s name, but he is also the patron saint of politicians — and who needs one more?
A Man For All Seasons does a nice job of portraying the struggle More had between his political ambitions and his conscience. What I like about him is that he was principled, but not too principled.
When he finally achieved his ambition and became Chancellor of England, he tried to sidestep the crisis of the day. Henry VIII wanted an heir, which was not happening with his wife, Catherine. So, he wanted to have that marriage annulled to be free to marry Anne Boleyn. When the Pope refused, More essentially sided with Rome, but he tried not to actually take a side at all.
Finally, as pressure grew, More was pushed to the point of resigning the chancellorship, but he tried to keep quiet on the issue, neither endorsing Henry’s moves to create a new Church of England nor criticizing them. In the end, he was put in a corner. He refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the king, he was convicted of treason and beheaded. He was a man who literally and figuratively tried to keep his head, but lost it literally — if never figuratively — in the end.
It’s that balance between political practicality and principle that I admire. We live in a world where too many people are too quick to see everything as a matter of inviolate principle. There’s too much drama. More was a man who ended up giving his life for what he believed in, but not after trying all the other options first.
Embedded in the film is a wonderful statement on the importance of law over passion. In this scene, More is Chancellor and his family is urging him to have a disloyal acquaintance arrested. He refuses.
His new, hot-headed son-in-law challenges him: “So, now you give the devil benefit of law.”
“Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?”
“Yes! I’d cut down every law in England for that.”
“Oh? And when the last law was down and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast; men’s laws, not God’s. And, if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think that you can stand upright in the wind that will blow then? Yes, I give the devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”
Next time you hear some zealot say that due process is just in the way of justice, that short speech would be good to remember.