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In 16th-century England, the corrupt King Henry VIII Robert Shaw betrays the Roman Catholic Church to divorce his wife and marry his latest conquest Anne Boleyn Vanessa Redgrave. Sir Thomas More Paul Scofield is then forced to choose between his principles and duty to his heretical king, who has begun executing the treasonous with increasing frequency. The historically profound battle of ideals also involves Cardinal Wolsey Orson Welles, Thomas Cromwell Leo McKern, and More's valiant wife Wendy Hiller.
Robert Bolt's successful play was not considered a hot commercial property by Columbia Pictures--a period piece about a moral issue without a star, without even a love story. Perhaps that's why Columbia left director Fred Zinnemann alone to make A Man for All Seasons, as long as he stuck to a relatively small budget. The results took everyone by surprise, as the talky morality play became a box-office hit and collected the top Oscars for 1966. At the play's heart is the standoff between King Henry VIII Robert Shaw, in young lion form and Sir Thomas More Paul Scofield, in an Oscar-winning performance. Henry wants More's official approval of divorce, but More's strict ethical and religious code will not let him waffle. More's rectitude is a source of exasperation to Cardinal Wolsey Orson Welles in a cameo, who chides, "If you could just see facts flat on without that horrible moral squint." Zinnemann's approach is all simplicity, and indeed the somewhat prosaic staging doesn't create a great deal of cinematic excitement. But the language is worth savoring, and the ethical politics are debated with all the calm and majesty of an absorbing chess game. --Robert Horton