July 28, 2021

Saint Thomas More, a man for eternity

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Last Tuesday the Church celebrated Saint Thomas More, a man who took to the extreme auqlla evangelical quote: “We must obey God rather than men.” This Sunday we would like to recommend you a great movie about this saint, ‘A man for eternity‘(Fred Zinnemann, 1966). We will get closer to this movie, of course, hand in hand with our movie buff pater.

Henry VIII wants to separate from his wife. Although everyone seems to support him, his chancellor is opposed. He is Thomas More, whose conscience prevents him from assuming the king’s wishes.

The movie

The decade of the 60s is characterized by the fight between cinema and television. The reason is that this had become the ideal medium for the Americans. Taking advantage, then, of the success of films like Ben-Hur Y King of Kings, Hollywood devised the epic genre, where spectacular images, colossal settings, renowned actors, etc. coexisted with new shooting techniques, against which the small screen had nothing to do: cinemascope, technicolor … This is the time of El Cid, 55 days in Beijing, Doctor Zhivago Y Lawrence de Arabia, among many others. Therefore, the film that concerns us is framed within this context, wanting to be an epic film, but at the same time religious.

However, and in fairness, we must point out that A man for eternity It was not the first title to address this epic-religious genre. Before her, they had already done it productions of the stature of Torment and ecstasy O Becket, where all the characteristics of the epic genre were mixed with those of the religious one. In fact, we could say that Becket is the “spiritual mother” of our film, since it already presented a problem of conscience similar to this: the dilemma between obeying God or earthly powers (the comparison is greater if we take into account that both tell the real story of both chancellors of the kingdom of England facing their respective monarchs).

And, in effect, the film stars Saint Thomas More (1478-1535), who opposed King Henry VIII when he expressed his desire to divorce his wife and marry another woman. As he was a Catholic, he could not conceive of this monarch’s determination to contradict the Church’s doctrine in this area, so he was adamantly opposed to it, and made him see it. Of course, he was threatened with death, but he, far from being daunted, strengthened his opinion, since he had understood that obedience to God is above obedience to men. It is not strange, then, that he is currently invoked as the patron of the causes that generate problems of conscience.

Buy here the book ‘100 Christian Films’

Nor is it strange that it was director Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997) who took over the project. The reason is that, before addressing it, he had already shot several tapes in which he echoed these internal debates: Men, Alone in the face of danger, Story of a nun… All of them are stories in which their protagonists must affirm their convictions and moral principles in an environment contrary to them, in the same way that Saint Thomas had had to choose God in an adverse context. Therefore, and in some way, this biopic it served as the culmination of a filmography devoted to this subject.

To be faithful to the canons of the epic genre, Zinnemann wanted the film to star the two great stars of the moment: Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, but, as both had played similar roles (when not traced) in Becket, they refused
(Paradoxically, O’Toole would return to assume that of Henry II in The lion in winter). For this reason, he decided to have Paul Scofield (1922-2008), an actor who had little experience in the world of cinema, but who enjoyed a lot of prestige in the world of theater; moreover, that he had already played the role of Saint Thomas More on stage (remember that the film is based on the homonymous work by Robert Bolt). And, without a doubt, the choice was a success, because the actor won an Oscar for his performance.

Other awards that we can mention are: five more Oscars (among them, best film and best director), four Golden Globes, five NBR awards and seven BAFTA awards. Of course, the film was very well received by the public, which made it the fifth highest grossing of the year (the first was another religious drama: Hawaiiby George Roy Hill). In 1995, it was included among the forty-five best titles on the Vatican list; in 1999, it was considered one of the hundred most important films of English cinema (specifically, number 43)[1], and in 2008 it was ranked 106th out of Empire Magazine’s 500 Favorite Films. In 1988, a television adaptation of the film was made with Charlton Heston as the protagonist, but it did not even reach the level of this.

What can we learn from it?

When Saint Peter and the apostles are ordered by the Jewish authorities to abandon the preaching of the faith, they respond: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Precisely, in this reply, the Church finds the foundation of its position before the laws that violate divine precepts: «The citizen has an obligation in conscience not to follow the prescriptions of the civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order , to the fundamental rights of people or to the teachings of the Gospel. The rejection of obedience to civil authorities, when its demands are contrary to those of a right conscience, has its justification in the distinction between the service of God and the service of the political community ”(CCE, 2242).

In this way, since the beginning of Christianity, the affirmation of the lordship of Jesus over the world and over history itself also means recognizing that man should not submit his personal freedom, in an absolute way, to any earthly power, but only to God. . That is why, specifically, in a moment of the Gospel, the Lord says: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). Or, in another passage, when he is accused of performing healings on Saturday, the holy day of the Jewish people and, therefore, of absolute rest, he responds: “It is permissible to do well on Saturday” (Mt. 12:12).

[1] BBC News, September 23, 1999.

This review, and 99 more, can be found in the book ‘100 Christian Films’, published by Homo Legens.

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