When I was first asked to compile a list of religious and spiritual movies, I didn’t think that I would still be plugging away at it almost two years later…
My original plan totally went out of the window; I actually set aside 10 films to discuss in a single list, which I’m sure will be seen with irony by those familiar with this series as all early attempts ended up in a massive outpouring for each movie bigger than my dissertation. Over the 3 (and a half) entries I’ve presented thus far, the content of the list has changed several times, with inspiration coming from the most unlikely sources.
Working for The Film Magazine has helped me to network with cinephiles all over the globe – one such a person, whom I’m very good friends with now, was keen to swap film suggestions with me. I don’t even know how it started, but one day she suggested Becket and I suggested A Man For All Seasons in return. The latter has been one of my mother’s favourites for years but I had only just seen it all the way through a week or so before the swap. To immediately follow it up with Becket produced a totally unexpected experience which I have wanted to write about ever since.
Now, I’m shaking up my usual layout for this series.
Instead of writing separate essays for Becket and A Man For All Seasons, I’m discussing the pair together because of how insanely similar and equally as impactful they have both proven to be.
In terms of the actual logistics of the movies, both are period dramas produced in the 1960s, based on stage plays and both are Academy Award winners. Regarding their subjects, there are some initial differences – Becket is based in the 12th century while A Man For All Seasons takes place three centuries later – but following that the similarities come thick and fast to the point that it will seem like I’m lying…
Both subjects of the films are men called Thomas – Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) and Thomas More (Paul Scofield). Both men had risen to great positions of power in the English Court, both serving under a King Henry: Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Henry VIII (Robert Shaw). Both were trusted advisors, confidantes and friends to their King, with both earning the position of Lord Chancellor of England. However, both fell out of favour with their King as both were torn between their loyalties to the English Crown and to God. Both of their Kings found them failing in their royal duties and both were accused of High Treason. Eventually, because both had incurred the wrath of their King, they both lost their lives: Becket was assassinated by knights in his own cathedral and More was executed in The Tower by beheading. It is through these acts that Becket and More were considered martyrs and were therefore canonised.
The almost uncanny similarities continue with the almost identical effect these movies had on me.
They both relate to a very specific aspect of my being that not many films have managed to achieve. For me to have written any of these religious essays, I had to be clear that I was drawing from my own Catholicism knowing that it would lead to interpretations that wouldn’t necessarily be shared with people of other faiths or of no faith at all (although I’ve always wanted to nurture a discussion in this area as I would love to learn about other people’s interpretations and perspectives). In reviewing the previous instalments of this series it’s interesting to see that from which I have been able to discern reflections of my own faith, going from the not overtly religious to those based directly on biblical stories. However, I now go a step further; not only do Becket and A Man For All Seasons reek of Catholicism but of English Catholicism.
English Catholicism is a living, breathing oxymoron with the events of The Reformation touched on in A Man For All Seasons via More’s own persecution, counting as one of the 40 Martyrs of the English Reformation. After decades and centuries of persecution and vilification, Catholicism had by and large disappeared from the English realm, with it only returning to any degree of prominence in the 19th century with the influx of Irish immigrants escaping famine, and having to fight for emancipation and citizenship all the way.
In the 21st century, some could say Catholicism in the UK is no longer a big deal, but that would just be telling of an ignorance with regards to Sectarian trouble in some parts of the country. For those who don’t fall victim of this social issue, there is the exclusion aspect from the British system as a result of centuries worth of propaganda (e.g. the idea that is bad luck to walk under a ladder has its origins in Anti-Catholic propaganda due to its Trinity imagery) alongside the constitutional details of our nation (Harry only married Megahn as he would have to relinquish his claim to the English Throne if he hitched up with me). Still, even with ignoring these constitutional gripes, there is the dichotomy we find within ourselves. Nurtured and brought up by the WASPish society of the UK, I occasionally find myself cringing at the more unreserved worship of my fellow Catholics abroad; our reserved nature is not the best match to a highly emotional religion full of ceremony and symbolism. However, although it is difficult to escape from British exceptionalism, Catholics do enjoy a certain amount of smugness that our allegiances go beyond the confines of this man-made nation, represented by our relationship with Rome. It is because of this that these two films struck a chord with me and offered a challenged to my existence as an English Catholic.
A Man For All Seasons and Becket document the cause of More’s and Becket’s sainthoods and, on the surface, I don’t entirely agree with their actions.
Thomas Becket was made the Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry II who thought that this would make his life easier – the presently lay and fiendishly clever Becket warned Henry that if given such a post he would have to take it seriously. Indeed, the previously indulgent Becket did become incredibly devout, giving up his life of luxury, represented by his giving away of all his possessions to the poor. So, when Henry continued to exert his own will over the church, enforcing taxes to fund his personal wars and overruling the clerical courts with his own, Becket intervened. Once a loyal servant to the King, now a fervent defender of the Church, Becket is shown to even go so far as to excommunicate one of Henry’s own Lords who murdered a priest while he was awaiting trial.
In the case of More, there is a story that all English school children should be familiar with…
Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage to his current wife Catherine of Aragon as she has not given him a male heir and is now apparently barren. Henry wants to send an annulment application to the Pope based on the grounds that his marriage is invalid as Catherine is his brother’s widow (there are a few conflicting verses in the Books of The Law of the Old Testament on this particular matter). More does not support or counter-sign this application, pointing out the lack of legal validity in the action as it’s asking the Pope to dispense with his former dispensation (The Pope had indeed given Henry special allowance to marry Catherine despite her being previously married to his brother Arthur, based on one of the aforementioned conflicting biblical verses). Desperate to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, Henry takes the most extreme measures, effectively kick-starting the reformation in England by announcing himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. After this, he promptly marries Anne. Consequently, More refuses to swear an oath which recognises Henry as Head of the Church, and does not attend Anne’s coronation.
As a thoroughly Modern Millie brought up in Secular Britain, I was initially irked by More’s and Becket’s stances. I believe in religious freedom but I am very uncomfortable with the entangling of Church and State to the point that I am entirely against Theocracies. Both Becket and More seem to let their faith interfere with matters of state, prioritising their loyalties to a foreign power (Rome) above that of the country they swore to serve. I make this conclusion in response to the religious and political corruption I have seen in the modern world: witnessing George W. Bush claim that God told him to invade Iraq and Theresa May smugly claiming her “Christian” faith informs her ruling decisions over a divided and unstable nation is enough for me to wholeheartedly support the removal of religion from politics entirely. However, to draw comparisons between Becket and More with May and Bush would make any individual look very poorly informed, especially as they massively lack historical context. Becket and A Man For All Seasons present both men as individuals of incredible moral character.
These films capture Becket’s and More’s virtuous nature by their stark contrast with that of the other main and supporting characters.
First of all, the two Henrys, beyond the confines of Hollywood, have a definite historical reputation for being utter bastards. Both are a dangerous combination of tyrannical and petulant, almost like toddlers with superhuman powers (like Donald J.). Both in certain areas are incapable of the simplest tasks such as washing themselves and wiping their own arses (and I’m not exaggerating, ‘Horrible Histories’ can back me up on this), yet despite this apparent helplessness, they both enforce and exercise their selfish will with a ferocious brutality. When they don’t get their own way, they easily sink to the most depraved and underhand methods to destroy any opponents who stand in their way. They are brutish, bullying and villainous. In comparison, Becket and More are gentle, civilised and highly intelligent, both able to navigate the political landscape with wit and mercy (notably, Becket deliberately orchestrated the capitulation of French cities in Henry’s war efforts to spare the civilians from the blood-lust of the English Barons). It is by More’s and Becket’s efforts that they influenced a better governance in their respective Kings. Becket and More even stand out as righteous compared to the clergyman in their lives. Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) of A Man For All Seasons definitely has a charisma in the history books, the supposed son of a butcher’s son (you can’t deny that he is a working lad who has done well for himself), but that’s all he is. Despite being a Cardinal of the church, he is totally amoral, happy to bribe the religious officials in Rome to push through Henry’s annulment. Becket’s contemporaries fare no better; the likes of the Bishop of London are jealous, hungry for power and are happy to conspire in fraudulent claims to bring down his hated rival.
It is in this distinction from these worldly men that the true saintliness of More and Becket is revealed. The characteristic that truly sets them apart in this world of wickedness is their total rejection of, and disdain towards, evil.
As a judge and a Member of Parliament, it was universally acknowledged that More was the only man in the industry to refuse bribes or abuse his power. He was one of the only individuals who held the position of Lord Chancellor to not embezzle any funds, and gave the dubious Rich Richards (John Hurt) the benefit of the law when he easily had the power to throw him in jail. This mercy allowed Richards to associate with and assist More’s conspirators, ultimately leading to his beheading. Ironically, Richards colludes in the fraudulent charges of bribery against More which don’t stick because of More’s impenetrable reputation – this puppet of More’s enemies eventually commits perjury so that More is eventually found guilty of High Treason. Likewise, Becket refuses to be pressured by his king and excommunicates one of his barons, Lord Gilbert, who showed no penitence after committing sacrilegious murder. Also, before his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, there is a palpable self-hatred within Becket; his careful servitude to his King’s selfish and immoral will makes him a man without honour, impotent in his own will and desires. So, it is this particular quality of the abhorrence of all that is corrupt which leaves me contemplative and reflective upon my own personal faith. In Catholic theology and philosophy, good is not the opposite of evil but is the absence of evil. The same way light and dark are not opposites but darkness is the absence of light. Therefore, as More and Becket refuse the temptation of conforming to the pressures of royal duties and society, and are instead directed by their own conscience, they render themselves holy.
However, it is not their holiness alone that moved me, but the fact that this enlightened state of living happened despite their own fears, doubts and tribulations. Becket and A Man For All Seasons are both highly charged dramas fuelled with intense emotions. Recalling key moments from both films when planning out this article has left me with moist eyes and a lump in my throat. Both have agonisingly sorrowful moments which culminate in More’s and Becket’s tragic endings. All in all, they are both exquisitely beautiful works of art in their unflinching portrayal of the frailty and vulnerability of the human condition in the persons of Thomas More and Thomas Becket. Initially, Becket is a willing accomplice to Henry II’s lifestyle – drinking, debauchery and total power over his subjects, for which he often contested over with his Bishops. The moment this changes is when Henry has the clever idea of making Thomas his next Archbishop of Canterbury. Instantly, Becket’s characteristic coolness evaporates and is seized by a blood-chilling terror:
“My Lord, I’m frightened”
Once he is ordained a priest, he begins to gain confidence in his new commitments, experiencing a therapeutic elation from giving away all his possessions. Eventually, he is met with his definitive crisis. Becket receives news that a priest has been killed whilst escaping custody when awaiting trial under the orders of Lord Gilbert – this is sacrilegious murder. Becket finally sees the full extent of his responsibilities and destiny in his new role – and he has found himself most wanting.
“Please, Lord, make me worthy.”
This single moment truly encapsulates the Catholic Experience. The sudden desire to do what’s right but when pondering the task at hand you realise how much of a flawed human you are, shadowed by constant failure and mistakes, continually falling into temptation time and time again. In this despair you turn to the only person who can help you and replace your heart of stone with one of flesh. No other movie I have seen has articulated my own struggle as a Catholic in a more emphatic way than Becket has.
Compared to Becket’s exuberance, More initially seems a more cowardly character. He entirely disagrees with Henry VIII’s will to overturn the laws of the land and of God to the point that he finds Henry’s desecration of Jesus’ will on Earth to be utterly repugnant. But, instead of fierce defence and voiced condemnation, More offers his silence. He simply refuses to counter-sign Wolsey’s annulment proposal and to swear to the King’s oath, all without publicly speaking out against the evil he sees. More’s silence provides a window into his rich and complex humanity. It shows that he can walk amongst worldly temptations whilst keeping his honour: throughout the course of the movie his silence proves that he has the superior legal mind amongst all of his opponents and enemies. His superior knowledge which made him keep steadfast to his silence resulted in his conspirators inventing false charges to give grounds for his execution. More’s silence also reveals his gentleness and vulnerability. He is no stranger to Henry’s mercurial nature and explosive rage, and he is wise enough to know his lack of co-operation doesn’t just endanger himself but also his friends and family. You feel his heartbreak as he witnesses his family dragged down to destitution and admire his deliberate efforts to alienate his friends so as to protect their children. The unspoken pain he must have endured when his own moral decisions, despite how righteous they were, hurt those most dear to him in the world, is a contemplation that hits me hard.
His silence ultimately shows the final part of his journey to saintliness when he is eventually sentenced to death for High Treason. Up to this point, More used his wits to stay alive, honouring God’s will first and obeying the laws of the land as far as his conscience allowed him to. But at this point, he could no longer escape death. He had nothing left to lose:
“…I will now discharge my mind concerning the indictment and the King’s title. The indictment is grounded in an Act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the Law of God and His Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which no temporal person may by any law presume to take upon him, This was granted by the mouth of our Saviour, Christ Himself…”
This statement causes an outcry that he has indeed harboured malice towards the King the whole time. The vocal opposition is met with this reply:
“I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And is this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live!”
By this utterance, when faced with his inevitable death, More attains the highest possible state of holiness by reflecting the image of Christ Himself. Theological texts on Christ’s Passion remark on how quick his death was (crucifixion can horrifyingly last for days). It is often attributed to Christ’s divinity, being able to transcend above the survival instinct and willingly quite literally “give up the ghost”. Like Christ, More puts up no defence to save his life apart from the truth he has offered from the beginning, a truth that sealed his fate as did Christ’s “I am” when he was questioned if he was the Son of God. Knowing he has no other path, More faces his death with dignity and simply walks to it, like a lamb led to slaughter.
In experiencing these two moments within surprisingly similar and equally moving films, I’m left to ponder: what does it mean to be an English Catholic? Don’t worry, I’m not going to drop kick The Queen in the face or anything. I can, however, confidently proclaim that I feel the answer lies with these two greatly revered saints, especially considering the wonderment of my existence in post-reformation England (for they will have no Popery here!).
My religious history is undeniably deeply entangled with the lives of More and Becket. They know better than anyone the difficulties, challenges and even the loneliness of English Catholicism and offer examples of how to stay true to this identity. Whenever there is injustice, I should act accordingly to what gifts I have been given and what my conscience tells me.
As an English Catholic, I’m not going to be able to stop myself falling into certain stereotypes and clichés: more reserved than some of my international counterparts, believes in good manners, enjoys cups of tea and gets ridiculously excited when faced with blue skies and glorious sunshine. I also want the best for my country and for us to return to the more glorious parts of our history: our proud declaration that we are “The Asylum of All Nations” by The Times newspaper in 1853; Catholic, Jewish and Non-Conformist emancipation in years before this; women’s emancipation in decades to follow; the establishment of the NHS and the Welfare State after the Second World War; and our membership to the EU, contributing to 74 years of peacetime in a continent that had never not known war. In these great achievements and in the lives of Thomas More and Thomas Becket, I know that England, The Dowry of Our Lady, and Englishmen have a massive capacity to love and care for all of humanity, regardless of race, nationality and sex, and it is my duty as an English Catholic to support this love and to practice it myself.
Read the other parts of this series at the following links:
Part 1 – The Prince of Egypt, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Matter of Life and Death
Part 2 – Blade Runner, Cloud Atlas, It’s A Wonderful Life
Part 2.5 – The Miracle Maker
Part 3 – Brazil, In Bruges