To say that A Man for All Seasons is almost the definition of “academic” cinema is a loaded statement. Since the struggle of 19th century progressive artists to overcome establishment definitions of quality, being called an “academic” artist verges on insult. The fact that Seasons won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, only reinforces the expectation of safe, middle-brow, “worthy” art that is more respectable than enjoyable.
There is another aspect to “academic” art, however, which should not be overlooked. It may be conservative, but its appeal to established standards guarantees a level of craftsmanship that “innovative” art may not possess. Restrained, literate and thematically complex, Seasons remains a consistently engaging drama, even if it does nothing to advance the art of cinema. Its director, Fred Zinnemann, is no Godard or Antonioni. (He probably would have been offended by the comparison.) Seasons’s appeal is entirely that of the well tailored, big budget spectacular. Perhaps for that reason, however, it continues to entertain while much of the innovative work of the same period fades into obscurity.
It would have been tough for the filmmakers to go wrong. Start with a successful drama about a serious subject, the crisis of conscience Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) experiences when dealing with Henry VIII’s (Robert Shaw) desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Support that subject with a big budget and well known actors (including Nigel Davenport, Wendy Hiller, John Hurt, Leo McKern and Orson Welles). Invite the play’s author, Robert Bolt, responsible for the script for the equally prestigious Lawrence of Arabia, to write the screenplay, then put an Academy Award winning director at the helm. With all these ingredients, it is no surprise that the results are satisfying and repeatedly enjoyable. It is also no surprise that the film is uncontroversial, encouraging identification with More as England’s one upright citizen in a dramatically effective but historically suspect simplification of tangled political and moral motivations.
That doesn’t make the film stupid, however, or devoid of skill. Academic art is not inherently stultifying or inept. The problem is the praise it receives from the uncritical because it plays by the rules for their own sake. On the other hand, by its very nature, the “new” often does not age well. What may seem like important innovation can, over time, appear trivial or banal. You cannot know what is significant about a novelty. Only time will separate innovations with power and value from momentarily alluring gimmicks.
The craft of A Man for All Seasons does not make it a great film. Nor does it make it retrograde kitsch fit only for camp patrons. What the film lacks in innovation it makes up in measured intelligence. The sticky point being that while filmmakers could do a lot worse than emulating work like A Man for All Seasons, if they did nothing else, the art would stagnate and die. Like it or not, tradition and innovation are mutually dependent antagonists.