A Man for All Seasons

Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 February

 

 

Jane Boleyn executed, 1542

On this day in 1542, Jane Boleyn was executed. Not to be confused with her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, Jane went to meet her maker on the same day as Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard.

Jane had been born Jane Parker and had married George Boleyn (brother of Anne). She arrived at the court of the king as a young woman and had joined the household of the king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, before marrying George Boleyn who, according to various reports was a wild womaniser, or gay, or both.

In 1536 George Boleyn was arrested for the crime of sleeping with his sister, Anne (who was now queen). Jane testified against her husband, possibly because she resented his relationship with her sister-in-law, possibly because she was simply swept along on the wave of intrigue that would unseat the second queen and the entire Boleyn family.

Later, as the fifth wife’s attendant, she arranged clandestine meetings for the young queen Catherine with her lover, Thomas Culpeper. It was on the discovery of this fact that Henry VIII had both women imprisoned in the Tower of London. Jane died on the same day as the teenage queen, aged about 36.

 

 

 

A Man for All Seasons (1966, dir: Fred Zinnemann)

One of a series of generally turgid royal costume dramas produced in Britain in the 1960s, A Man for All Seasons bucks the trend, though on paper it has all the hallmarks of the classic yawn.

Yes, it’s a stage play and yes, director Fred Zinnemann doesn’t do very much in the way of opening it out for the movie camera. Instead he leaves it down to the power of Robert Bolt’s original script, which essentially delineates a sumo-battle of wills in Tudor England.

It’s between Henry VIII, who wants to divorce his first wife, and Sir Thomas More, the only person pointing out that divorce is against the will of god and of the church of Rome. Ranged against More is not just the king, but the entire court, a gang of chisellers who’d sell their own mothers if it would keep them in favour with the crown.

Bolt’s brilliance is in exposing their motives without ever making them explicit. Zinneman’s brilliance is in keeping the actors playing all these roles on a very tight leash. There’s no such problem with Paul Scofield as Thomas More, but Robert Shaw as Henry VIII, Orson Welles as the scheming Cardinal Wolsey, Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell, all are capable of letting the boom of their own voices get the upper hand.

Moving from small chamber scenes to a grand inquisitorial finale, the film is concerned throughout with matters legal and theological, its triumph being that it turns potentially dry topics such as Henry’s split with Rome and his decision to make himself the head of his own church in England into compelling entertainment. A box office hit, a multiple Oscar winner, its timeless script means it works just as well today as it did when it was made.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The great Paul Scofield’s first film performance – an Oscar winner
  • Ted Moore’s luscious Technicolor cinematography
  • Fabulous costumes by Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge
  • A cast including Vanessa Redgrave, John Hurt and Nigel Davenport

 

 

 

A Man for All Seasons – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Jaws

Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw in Jaws

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

18 October

 

 

Moby-Dick published, 1851

On this day in 1851, Herman Melville published what is considered to be one of the great American novels, about the elemental struggle between one Captain Ahab and the whale that once bit off his leg.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Ishmael, and “Call me Ishmael”, its opening sentence, has become one of the most recognised opening lines in literature.

The book is based on two actual events. One took place in 1820, when a sperm whale rammed and sank the Essex, a whaler that was in hot pursuit of it. The other was the killing of a mighty bull whale nicknamed Mocha Dick, an albino so called because he frequented the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha, rather than on account of his cocoa sprinkled head.

Mocha Dick had been harried by whalers from at least 1810, and it was in the late 1830s that he was killed (according to Jeremiah Reynolds’s book Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific).

But back to Ahab, a strict, dour man with 40 years of whaling under his belt, whose obsession with the giant mythical beast takes on a biblical aspect as he leads the crew of his ship, the Pequod, to their deaths in his pursuit of the ultimate quarry.

Perhaps the same relationship can be seen between the book and its author – Melville believed it was his masterwork; the critics did not, and so the author well known for books such as Typee and Omoo started a slide towards literary oblivion, becoming rescued only by the Modernists after the First World War who saw his discursive, eclectic, jackdaw style as a precursor to experiments they were conducting.

 

 

Jaws (1975, dir: Steven Spielberg)

Jaws is the Moby-Dick of the screen, the tale of a captain obsessed with a big maritime beast translating easily from one medium to another and one species to another. Doing the translating were director Steven Spielberg and Carl Gottlieb, who rewrote a lot of Peter Benchley’s original screenplay, not forgetting Robert Shaw as the crazed Quint, Ahab in greasy modern garb.

Telling the story of a giant white shark that terrorises a holiday town, and the three men who assemble, with varying degrees of reluctance, to kill it, Jaws is the story of one man’s obsession and another man’s fear (the third man, Richard Dreyfuss, being little more than an on-screen narrator, our Ishmael).

It’s also notable for being one of the few Spielberg films with a countercultural bent. Ironically, it’s considered to be the film that changed Hollywood, sounding the death knell for those vaguely countercultural films of the early 1970s and signalling the arrival of the era of the summer blockbuster, the event movie, the movie that opens on every screen in the world simultaneously (finances permitting).

Spielberg learnt a vital lesson from his film Duel, in which lone motorist Dennis Weaver is monstered by a gigantic truck, the driver of which is never seen. We don’t see much of the shark in Jaws either, and the film is all the better for it.

And it’s why anyone who has ever seen the film has a far more complicated relationship with swimming in the sea than they used to, even in waters where you’d never find sharks – the fact that there isn’t a shark there doesn’t mean there isn’t a shark there, if you follow me.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The John Williams score – der duh
  • Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech, largely written by him
  • “You’re going to need a bigger boat”
  • How many films lend their names to Bond villains?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Jaws – at Amazon