For a man whose film career included just over a dozen appearances on the big screen across a span of 45 years Paul Scofield made a huge impact as an actor, including a number of best actor awards and even more nominations. The role that made his career was that of the lead in A Man for All Seasons, the film adaptation of the play by Robert Bolt about the life and death of St. Thomas More. Scofield’s portrayal of the man who defied King Henry VIII still stands as possibly the greatest portrayal of a historical character in the history of film.
For that reason when I first saw Quiz Show, the film about the game show scandals of the 1950s, I could not separate Mark Van Doren, played by Scofield, from Thomas More. I still can’t.
And that is one of the reasons why, after my Christian Manhood classes watch and discuss Quiz Show, I also show them the final section of A Man for All Seasons. In both films Scofield gives commanding performances as a man of great integrity. In each movie there is a foil – Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show and Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons – who is either a son or son-ish, and who, instead of choosing the high road, grabs at fame, fortune, and honor.
To focus on the men portrayed by Scofield is to be made aware of the importance of family in the lives of each. In Quiz Show Mark Van Doren is shocked that his son has been subpoenaed as one of the contestants who cheated on the game show “Twenty-One,” and his anger reaches its full force when he tells his son Charlie “your name is mine!” Yet in an instant his anger turns to concern as he asks, “Oh my God, Charlie, how are you going to tell that committee?”
Several scenes earlier we are privy to the elder Van Doren’s birthday party at the family compound in Connecticut, where the guest list included luminaries like Edmund Wilson and Thomas Merton. To the amazement of Dick Goodwin, the future RFK speech writer who was at the time investigating quiz show corruption, the Van Doren family plays a game where one person quotes Shakespeare and another must guess the work being quoted. Not most people’s idea of family fun, but for the Van Doren clan – one that includes best-selling authors and Columbia English professors – it is a manifestation of their bond.
In A Man for All Seasons Thomas More takes under his wing a young man in the court of Henry VIII, Richard Rich (his real name). In a scene near and dear to my heart Thomas has found Rich a job as a teacher – “with a house, a servant, and fifty pounds a year” – because he knows that a political life will corrupt Rich. When More points out that Rich would be a good teacher the young man snidely replies, “Who would know it?” More calmly, and brilliantly, responds, “You, your pupils, your friends, God – not a bad public.” In the end Richard Rich becomes Attorney General for Wales, the quo in the quid pro quo of lying under oath at the trial of St. Thomas.
Just before the trial we see Thomas More with his actual child, and are given a glimpse into the bond between husband and wife, father and daughter. More, jailed in the Tower of London, is granted a visit from his family because, unbeknown to him, his brilliant and erudite daughter Margaret was told to do all in her power to convince her father to sign Henry VIII’s Oath of Succession – an act that would set him free. Exasperated, she cries out, “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” With a combination of sorrow and resignation her father replies, “Well, finally, it isn’t a matter of reason; finally, it’s a matter of love.”
The matter known as love is what makes the human family an image of the Blessed Trinity. When Mark Van Doren stands by his son during his confession before congress he is acting out of the same love that the Father has for each of us. When Thomas More goes to his execution after his unjust trial we see an imitation of the love inherent in the universal offering of Jesus at Calvary.
Stories like those of Mark Van Doren and St. Thomas More help us to see the path of authenticity, integration, and virtue as lived out in real families and in real situations. They also call us to walk that path, no matter how rocky, because it is the only one that leads from love and to Love.