Fred Zinnemann / France, UK / 1966 / 120mins
Available on dual format Blu-Ray/ DVD now.
Long before the BBC cornered the market in luxurious adaptations of the Wolf Hall variety, the British film industry rather specialised in glorious, highly watchable co-productions of this sort. Playwright and scriptwriter Robert Bolt was the go-to guy for such high-end drama. His work includes the scripts for Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and Ryan’s Daughter.
We are in the court of Henry VIII. Paul Scofield plays Mr Fixit Sir Thomas More. A corpulent Orson Welles (looking like an escapee from a Francis Bacon painting) appears as a hammy, scarlet-clad Cardinal Wolsey, if only briefly. By contrast Scofield has a superb stillness about him. The gorgeous exterior location work (much of it at Hampton Court and on- and around the Thames) forms a bucolic backdrop to this tale of the palace intrigues of Merrie England. Robert Shaw is a young, square-jawed Henry who is challenged by More’s devotion to honesty and sincere plain-speaking.
The late John Hurt plays the ambitious and aptly named Richard Rich (proving that the perjurers and arselickers will inherit the Earth) and Leo McKern is arch-schemer Thomas Cromwell with Susannah York and Wendy Hiller playing More’s daughter and wife respectively. Look out for a young Vanessa Redgrave romping energetically with King Henry.
Amid all the palaces and stunning scenery there lurks a tale of intrigue and backstairs machinations, of political prisoners of conscience who make a stand and pay the cost. In all the centuries since things haven’t changed much at all.