Charles Petzold

Cut to Silent Black; Hold; Roll Credits

June 17, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Sometime in the middle of the first season of The Tudors we added A Man for All Seasons to our movie queue. This is the “classic” account of the confrontation between Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII, and won Academy Awards for best picture of 1966, best director (Fred Zinnemann), best adapted screenplay (Robert Bolt, from his play), and best actor (Paul Scofield as More).

We watched it a couple nights ago. It's quite a wonderful movie. A gigantic and pasty Orson Welles has some early scenes as Cardinal Wolsey, Robert Shaw has one vibrant and tumultuous scene as Henry VIII, Wendy (“I'm a good girl I am”) Hiller played Thomas More's wife, and Susannah York played his daughter. The young John Hurt is almost unrecognizable in a pivotal role as court weasel, and who else could do a cameo of Anne Boleyn but Vanessa Redgrave?

At one point I felt that this portrayal of the battle between principles and political expediency was really about the growing public opposition to the war in Vietnam. But then I realized that the play actually dates from 1961, so it began seeming like an allegory for McCarthyism, which continued to poison political discourse long after Joseph McCarthy himself had died. This interpretation became quite obvious when the Duke of Norfolk and Thomas Cromwell showed More the list of people who had signed the “loyalty oath” to the king. Norfolk:

* * * SPOILER ALERT * * *

Alas, he cannot. As A Man for All Seasons draws to a close, the tension mounts and the suspense builds, all heading towards the final climactic scene. We were poised on the edge of the couch with trembling anticipation.

And then: Nothing. The screen went totally black.

“What the—” I exclaimed. “Did the tape break?”

“It's a DVD,” Deirdre said.

Soon the credits started rolling. The movie was actually over. I staggered about in confusion: Just a blank silent screen? What does it mean? Is this supposed to be some kind of obscure coded movie symbolism? Like a wavy picture meaning a flashback, or a train going into a tunnel meaning a romantic interlude, or “dunh da, dunh da, dunh da” music meaning a shark is coming?

Directors sure were tricky back in 1966. We're fortunate we live in a mature modern age when directors are much more explicit about their intentions. Today's directors spell out everything and never leave anything to doubt or the imagination.