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A Man For All Seasons

July 29, 2004

New in Films on Liberty and the State: A Man For All Seasons (1966) This film is about Thomas More (1478-1535) who served the King of England loyally and honestly but was eventually executed for his silent opposition to Henry VIII's self-aggrandizing moves against the Roman Catholic Church. What makes the film enjoyable to watch, despite the conclusion being well known, is the rigorous, witty character of Thomas More himself, a man of true integrity. An exchange that illustrates this well occurs when William Roper urges More, when he is chancellor, to arrest a man who is a threat to More but who has committed no crimes. When More refuses, Roper can't believe it: "You'd give the devil benefit of law!"

"Yes," More replies, "What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?"

Roper: "Yes! I'd cut down every law in England to do that!"

More: "Oh? And when the last law was down and the devil turned round on you where would you hide, the laws all being flat? ...Yes, I'd give the devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake."

In this masterful telling of the true story of one man who stood up to the State, merely by refusing to change his mind, there are numerous timely elements. The quick transformation by the English king of a former ally (in this case the Roman Catholic Church) into an enemy, with harsh punishment for any who do not adopt the new party line with sufficient speed. The denial of the right of Habeas Corpus so as to persecute someone who has not broken any laws. The abuse of religion to serve the purposes of the State. But the most disturbing aspect is well summarized in the words of Randolph Bourne, "The State is a jealous God and will brook no rivals."

More must be eliminated not because he is leading a rebellion against the State, indeed he does not even speak out against those things he disagrees with. It is merely his refusal to enthusiastically assent to the actions of the State that brings wrath down on him. A jealous God indeed.

This film deservedly swept the 1967 oscars winning Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

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