A timely movie recommendation

A Man For All Seasons goes to the heart of our current political season

A Man For All Seasons goes to the heart of our current political season

Last night, I re-watched A Man For All Seasons, which is an acutely timely movie. This telling of the fall of Thomas More focuses less on Henry VIII, and more on the corruption of institutions and people. Henry’s monomaniacal demand for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon played on people’s ambitions and weaknesses, turning them against people who stuck with their faith in both the wording and the spirit of the political and legal forms. The movie’s two poles of morality are More, whose adherence to principles in a debased age leads ultimately to his execution, and Richard Rich, a vacuous office-seeker who gets greater and greater rewards for his participation in the warping of the laws in pursuit of More.

In the final courtroom scene, Rich, recently appointed as Attorney General of Wales, perjures himself, claiming that More privately told him that Parliament did not have the authority to back Henry’s claim to be the head of a newly reformed English church. (More had remained silent on the subject, refusing to either support or deny Henry’s arguments for divorcing Catherine and beginning the split from “the Church of Rome.”) After his false testimony, More poses the following question to Rich after his testimony: “For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. . . but for Wales?”

The parallel to today’s vacuous office-seekers is fairly obvious.

Another highlight from the movie (and the play on which it was based) is this exchange:

William Roper: “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”

Sir Thomas More: “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

William Roper: “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”

Sir Thomas More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

The relevance of this warning to members of the Leopard Eating People’s Faces Party is also obvious.

There are many other salient moments for our times in the play. For example, the weak, useless, nervous courtiers accompanying Henry VIII, when we first see him, are both hilarious and disturbing. The different ways of bending to Henry’s will — enthusiastically, in the case of Cromwell; opportunistically, in the case of Rich; and ambivalently, in the case of the Duke of Norfolk — fit neatly into Tim Miller’s taxonomy of Trump collaborators. And there’s more (More?), such as stellar performances from great actors like Robert Shaw, Leo McKern, and John Hurt.

I strongly recommend giving it a watch, whether you’ve seen it before, or not.

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About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.


  1. Tony W says:

    I hate to point this out, but I think more people know about Henry VIII than nearly every other historical UK monarch.

    Acting in bad faith makes a person well-remembered in history, far better remembered than those who play by the rules. Even Eleanor Roosevelt understood this, although for different reasons and motivation.

    A consequential life can be for good or bad, and Trump has certainly been consequential and will likely be remembered for centuries to ome.

  2. Matt Bernius says:

    Another highlight from the movie (and the play on which it was based) is this exchange:

    I first learn of that exchange from my college pastor and I immediately sought out the play. Hey used it as an example of the danger of certain religous and moral mindsets that set themselves above the law.

    I’ve had it bookmarked ever since. I’ve quoted it here more times than I can count. It’s also why, though I occasionally work on criminal legal system reform work, my focus is always on working to improve laws versus completely tearing the system down. Not only does it fit my preference towards justice-driven incrementalism, but it’s an important reminder that, while our system of laws is often deeply flawed, the alternative is far more dangerous for all.

    I used to believe that was a view that most people shared. I sadly no longer feel that way.

    Aside: the original play has a really nice Brechtian element that I don’t think comes through in the movie.

  3. Joe says:

    Thanks for the excellent recommendation!

  4. Bill Jempty says:

    On Hogan’s Heroes, the Colonel helped save a German General’s life in exchange for his being burgermeister for Cleveland and Pittsburgh after the war was over.

    My Opinion? Roper got a better deal.

  5. Slugger says:

    Are you talking about the 1966 film or a newer version? My recollection from 1966 is that that film was smug and glib setting a saint (literally) against sleazy opportunists. Would not an accurate history show us a Vatican that had lots of temporal goals set against a monarch trying to steer his country in his way? At that time, the king actually was the owner of a country. I don’t know what More’s real life motives were, but his refusal to side with either Henry or the Pope on the divorce issue doesn’t seem principled to me. At that time, the Church had allowed several monarchs to divest from their first wives especially if they could not produce a viable male child, and the refusal to allow this to Henry was a bargaining chip to keep him in line. Martin Luther lived contemporaneously with More. Protestantism was very much in the air, and the Catholic Church was certainly fighting against it. More was part of the fight against Martin Luther. Henry by setting a course independent of Rome was establishing a more modern, progressive state even if his initial motive was venal.
    My memory may well be all wrong and my history very faulty. I do remember being put off by the movie in 1966.

  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    The quote about the devil and The Law is a great quote, but as the movie itself demonstrates, Moore was wrong and Roper was right. Moore puts his faith in The Law and sends Little on his way and ends up with his head on a block at Little’s word because all that really matters is power and The Law is just a charade to make power seem less arbitrary than it actually is.

  7. Kathy says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    There’s a scene early on in Cleopatra, the old movie, where Caesar sends Mark Anthony to Rome, and tells him to keep his legions intact because “they make the law legal.”

    And there’s Pompey’s infamous quote a few years earlier, “Cease quoting laws to those of us holding swords.”

  8. Kingdaddy says:


    I agree, the portrayal of More is a bit smug. That’s why I said the movie is worth watching for the enablers.

    Movies about Henry VIII often have very interesting riffs on each historical character, including Henry. For example, the Henry of A Man For All Seasons is malign, but he’s less of a cool character than Henry in the Wolf Hall mini-series. Cromwell in Wolf Hall is vastly more sympathetic than the version in A Man For All Seasons. Same for Anne Boleyn, who’s very different in Anne of a Thousand Days than in The Tudors.

  9. Kingdaddy says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Moore puts his faith in The Law and sends Little on his way and ends up with his head on a block at Little’s word because all that really matters is power and The Law is just a charade to make power seem less arbitrary than it actually is.

    If More was wrong, then so was Cromwell, who ended up on the block. Other enablers met similarly horrible fates, once the king decided it was time for them to go. So I think the sentiment of the play and movie is fairly Burkean: once you undermine laws and institutions, everyone winds up on the gallows, both resisters and collaborators.

    I also think that the fate of our current set of Cromwells and Riches face far easier fates, like finding something to do other than run for Congress, than execution.

  10. MarkedMan says:

    I find Henry VIII to be a fascinating character in so many ways. Here’s a few:
    – As a boy and a young man, he was a handsome, physically fit athletic giant, and an intellectual to boot.
    – I suspect that the worst thing that ever happened to him was his first “victory” against France in the one battle he actually participated in. As I understand it, he and his seasoned troops attacked a fortified town and quickly defeated it. Those around him lavishly praised his skill in leading such an amazing victory, at least to his face, but never told him that it was a small, unimportant town whose professional soldiers were all away and it was instead defended by townspeople and peasants from the surrounding village. For the rest of his life he had a false and fatal view of the superiority of English troops vis a vis the French.
    – Everyone, seemingly including historians, assumes the break with the church was primarily about the divorce, but FWIW, it came at a time when Henry was bankrupting the treasury over his wars, and part of the break included confiscation of all church properties and treasure, which was a very, very large fortune.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    This highlights how little history we actually know. Most of human history happened before the invention of writing so that’s anthropology* not history. We know some Egyptian history as told by guys who’d have been stabbed in the neck if they said anything critical of the rulers who paid them. We mostly know untrue or misleading things about ancient Greece. Things get a bit clearer when Rome comes on the scene but even there you have contemporary historians writing about things that happened a century before they were born. Meanwhile: the whole rest of the world was doing. . . something.

    Henry VIII died just less than 500 years ago, in an English-speaking country, with all sorts of people writing all sorts of things and we still can’t decide who was up to what. And again, meanwhile, the parts of the country that were not the court were doing. . . something.

    In the case of Thomas More he either sent too many, not enough, or just the right number of heretics to be burned alive. We will never know.

    ETA: *Or archeology.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:


    part of the break included confiscation of all church properties and treasure, which was a very, very large fortune.

    Follow the money, as a wise man once said in a dark garage.

  13. Stormy Dragon says:


    “Richard Rich became Chancellor of England and died in his bed.”

  14. Kingdaddy says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    And there were people who also survived la Terreur in France, and Stalin’s purges in the USSR.

  15. MarkedMan says:

    @Kingdaddy: I think I get Stormy’s point though: in real life people who don’t deserve it can win in the end, or at least “win”.

  16. CSK says:

    Speaking of Trump, why do I have this sudden urge to re-watch Idiocracy?

  17. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    People in every day situations write about their concerns, not necessarily in order to leave an accurate record of events. This is true even of journalists, who are concerned with accuracy; but what interests them may not be what interests historians later on.

    This before getting into things like bias, availability of information, distortions in the telling, etc. For instance, Caesar sent dispatches of his exploits in Gaul to Rome. His campaigns there are well documented. But how biased was Caesar about himself?

    And don’t forget rumor. I sometimes think disinformation is nothing but rumor mixed with bias.

  18. dazedandconfused says:

    Well, from Henry’s defense, the King dying without an heir in those days meant civil war, all but assured, costing tens to hundreds of thousands of lives, and as far as he knew it could not be a woman. He had no reason to believe that a woman could become the top dog in England and apparently neither did anyone else during his lifetime.

    Yeah, he was an SOB, but at least he did it openly. All those wives could’ve died in “accidents” or of “sudden illness” no doubt brough on by “something they ate”.

  19. DK says:


    Yeah, he was an SOB, but at least he did it openly.

    No “but” can rehabilitate Henry VIII. He was a bloody tyrant. His legitimate daughters were only slightly better.

    No one before his reign knew you could execute a queen. He found a way, as did his daughter. No one before his reign knew you could invent a church in order to erase your first marriage. Found a way.

    So maybe Henry and his grasping advisors should have found a way to secure the Tudor sucession without making him one of the most prolific acute killers in Western history.

  20. dazedandconfused says:

    @Kingdaddy: Wolf Hall is a minor masterpiece (NPI) IMO. That haunting cello, the look on Cromwell’s face in that last scene embrace from Henry. Great acting all around. Perhaps the best part is treating Cromwell as a protagonist when he was every bit the serpent Henry told him to his face that he was.

  21. Ken_L says:

    There have been two very disturbing developments in right-wing politics in America since Trump came to dominate them. Firstly, the increasing numbers of leading right-wing figures who have actually been accused or convicted of crimes which in the olden days would have ended their political careers. Being a criminal is no longer a handicap in right-wing politics – it may even have become a badge of honor; evidence that you too have been a victim of the “weaponisation of the justice system”. From Eddie Gallagher to Mike Flynn to Ashli Babbitt to the “January 6 hostages”, Trump Republicans are hailing criminals as heroes. Driving into (the right kind of) protesters is openly recommended.

    The second development, allied of course to the first, is the growing willingness of Republicans to assert that if the law is an obstacle to their political agenda, then the law should be ignored. Not only ignored, but prosecutors and judges who seek to enforce inconvenient laws are to be denigrated as corrupt partisan tools of the left. Unless of course the judges are upholding 19th century laws against abortion, in which case they are pillars of constitutional governance.

    The rule of law is one of the bedrock characteristics of a democracy. It cannot survive if one of a nation’s two major parties cynically undermines public confidence in it and openly condones/encourages defiance of it when it suits its political objectives. Yet in the absence of widespread public disgust at what Trump Republicans are doing, I see no way in which the slow disintegration of democratic governance can be reversed.

  22. Matt Bernius says:

    One discussion thread I find interesting is the tension that shows up when historical figures and events are represented in works of fiction. There’s such a tension there between representing what “really” happened and telling the story the author wants to tell.

    Of course, this is nothing new. Shakespeare’s Historical Plays were not in fact history (which anyone who is part of the “Richard the III was not history’s greatest monster” movement would be the first to tell you).

    Of course the same is also true of documentaries. Years ago I had the pleasure of hearing Werner Herzog speak in person about his work. Someone asked him about his “documentaries.” He corrected the person by saying “I don’t make documentaries. I assemble fictitious stories from real footage” (or something to that effect).

    Of course, Herzog being Herzog, contradicted that point later in the Q&A, but I wasn’t going to be the one to call that out.