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A Man For All Seasons

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It is a rare occurrence to see a film that is so memorable that it implants itself on the human psyche. A film that contains such a captivating story, compelling characters, and profound themes occurs so rarely it becomes etched into our collective unconscious. A Man for All Seasons is one of those films.

Set in Tudor England during the reign of King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547), A Man for All Seasons tells the story of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon (1485 – 1536), the birth of the Church of England, and the man who stood opposed to it.

During the 1530s, King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, passed the Act of Succession (which declared Princess Mary (1516 – 1558), the King’s daughter with Catherine, illegitimate) and the Act of Supremacy (which gave Henry supreme command over the Church in England), and made himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

In A Man for All Seasons, Henry asks Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535) to disregard his own principles and express his approval of the King’s desire to divorce his wife and establish an English Church separate from Rome. Henry believes that More’s support will legitimise his actions because More is a man known for his moral integrity. Initially, Henry uses friendship and dodgy logic to convince his friend. It fails, and the so-called “defender of the faith” tries using religious arguments to justify his adultery.  When this fails, he merely resorts to threats. Again, More refuses to endorse Henry’s actions.

A Man for All Seasons is really about the relationship between the law (representing the majesty of the state) and individual consciousness. In the film, Sir Thomas More is depicted as a man with an almost religious reverence for the law because he sees it as the only barrier between an ordered society and anarchy. In one scene, when William Roper the Younger (1496 – 1578) tells him he would gladly lay waste to every law in order to get at the devil, More replies that he would “give the devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”

More’s reverence goes far beyond mere man-made law, however. He also shows a deep reverence for the laws of God, as well. After being sentenced to death, More finally breaks his silence and refers to the Act of Succession, which required people to recognise Henry’s supremacy in the Church and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, as “directly repugnant to the law of God and His Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which no temporal person may be any law presume to take upon him.” More argues that the authority to enforce the law of God was granted to Saint Peter by Christ himself and remained the prerogative of the Bishop of Rome.

Furthermore, More argues that the Catholic Church had been guaranteed immunity from interference in both the King’s coronation oath and in Magna Carta. In his coronation oath, Henry had promised to “preserve to God and Holy Church, and to the people and clergy, entire peace and concord before God.” Similarly, the Magna Carta stated that the English people had “granted to God, and by this present charter confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”

The central problem of the film is that the legal and political system in England is incapable of allowing More to hold a contradictory, private opinion. Even before he is appointed Chancellor, More expresses no desire to get involved with the debate surrounding the King’s marriage. He will not, however, swear an oath accepting the King’s marriage or his position as the head of the Church of England. More believes that it is the Pope who is the head of the Church, not the King, and he is perfectly willing to sacrifice his wealth, family, position, freedom, and, ultimately, his life to retain his integrity.

The relationship between the law and an individual’s conscience is an important one. What A Man for All Seasons illustrates is just how important this relationship is, and what happens when this relationship is violated. Modern proponents of social justice, identity politics, and political correctness would do well to watch A Man for All Seasons.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)

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This week for our weekly cultural article we will be examining the David Lean’s (1908 – 1991) 1946 film Great Expectations, considered to be one of the greatest British films ever made. When it was released in 1946, it was met with glowing reviews. Today, seventy years later, it has been described by Criterion as “one of the greatest translations of literature into film.”

David Lean’s Great Expectations captures the essence of Charles Dicken’s (1812 – 1870) literary genius by juxtaposing his memorable characters with the artful film direction of David Lean. Leans use of black and white to add to the foreboding and melancholy atmosphere of the film.  Then there are the numerous dark, creepy, rundown, and ultimately human locations that burn themselves into the memory: the creepy graveyard where a young Pip first meets escaped convict Abel Magwitch, the Kentish marshes, Miss Havisham’s dilapidated and macabre home whose clocks are stopped at the exact time Miss Havisham learnt of her fiance’s betrayal, 19th century London, Mr. Jagger’s offices whose walls are decorated with the death masks of defendants lost to the gallows, the prison where Magwitch dies, and so forth.

Then there are the wealth of memorable characters the film presents to us. The most notable of these is Pip through whom we see all of the tragedy and injustice of early 19th century England. Pip acts as more of an observer to the world around him than an actual protagonist. We first meet Pip (Anthony Wager, 1932 – 1990) as a young orphan being raised by his overbearing older sister (Freda Jackson, 1907 – 1990) and her kindly blacksmith husband (Bernard Miles, 1907 – 1991). It is during this time that Pip first encounters Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie, 1878 – 1960), a kind yet ultimately decent escaped convict, in the cemetery, and when his heart is broken by the coquettish Estella (Jean Simmons, 1929 – 2010) and the dishevelled and deranged Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt, 1900 – 1969).

As the film progresses, we see Pip grow into a young man, played by John Mills (1908 – 2005), who, it could be argued, was perhaps a little too old to play Pip in his early twenties.  This Pip has been bequeathed a large allowance by an unknown benefactor and travels to London with the view of becoming a gentleman. There he forms a friendship with the Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness, 1914 – 2000) who helps him refine his manners. The adult Pip finds himself corrupted by the ponce and ceremony of the English upper-class and is ashamed to admit that he would have paid money to keep Joe Gargery, dressed in his cheap suit and awkward manner, away. Pip is forced to reexamine his views after discovering that his benefactor is none other than the escaped convict Magwitch, who was so struck by Pip’s childhood compassion that he was inspired to make something of himself and become his benefactor. Magwitch’s kindness and gratitude cause Pip to regain his lost humanity.

Great expectations represents a type of film that no longer exists: one that deals entirely with the human condition. These films are no longer made because they often do not involve exciting elements, but rather present characters that are flawed and suffering and places these characters in stories that are essentially tragic in nature. These films are no longer made because they do not fit into the blockbuster formula. Rather than the larger-than-life heroes of the blockbuster, films on the human condition feature characters that are ultimately flawed and suffering. These characters are placed in stories that are ultimately tragic in their nature. A far cry from the often over-the-top plots of the modern blockbuster.  There is something deeply satisfying about films like Great Expectations which shows normal people to be capable of leading a dignified existence regardless of the tragedy and suffering they are forced to face.