MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Heroes for all seasons and for off-seasons

Scofield’s More is for all time. Steve McQueen’s sailor is only for today

WENDY MICHENER February 1 1967
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Heroes for all seasons and for off-seasons

Scofield’s More is for all time. Steve McQueen’s sailor is only for today

WENDY MICHENER February 1 1967

Heroes for all seasons and for off-seasons

Scofield’s More is for all time. Steve McQueen’s sailor is only for today

WENDY MICHENER

Michener on movies

A GOOD MAN, as the blues so rightly have it, is hard to find. Even rarer is a good man who is also likable — someone, that is, who has all the qualities we admire without making us feel guilty about our own shortcomings.

Such a man, according to playwright Robert Bolt, was Sir Thomas More — lawyer, family man, chancellor to Henry VIII and a Catholic martyr. Bolt expressed his own admiration in a play, A Man For All Seasons, which has now become an expensive widescreen spectacle, in the classy tradition of Becket or Lawrence of Arabia.

Bolt sees More as a man with personal magnetism, interior serenity plus the kind of self-evident goodness that rebukes all who oppose it. Like John Kennedy, this character (historically accurate or not) is a hero for our times. A good country shouldn’t need heroes, or so Bertolt Brecht thought, but this certainly can’t be said of the United States today. Renata Adler of The New Yorker summed it up neatly this way: "My hero is somebody who takes greater risks than I’m prepared to take on behalf of things that I believe in.”

That’s exactly what More does. When he gives up all his public honors, wealth, his family and even his life for the sake of his private, personal integrity, he is doing what few of us in North America are prepared to do— and some are now being asked to do. In a sense the draft-dodgers of the 1960s are claiming the same right that More claimed: to be a private person at a time when the state demands a public commitment. What makes More such an appealing hero today is not just his courage but his unquestioning belief that he was right. “The protest of a rebel is questionable,” says Bolt, “but the protest of a conservative — that is something truly remarkable."

In terms of pure entertainment A Man For All Seasons is equally remarkable. From the moment Cardinal Wolsey’s messenger leaps onto the barge carrying him up the river to More’s house, the picture moves forward with the compelling sweep of the best heroic drama. Bolt’s somewhat abstract arguments of honor are brought to life by Paul Scofield’s warm voice and presence. Scofield is a marvelous actor, but also lucky in having a director with enough sense to back away during moments of theatrical rhetoric, instead of peering down his gullet, a fate suffered by Sir Laurence Olivier in Othello.

Then there’s Robert Shaw, a Henry VIII with enough fire for half a dozen wives, and Wendy Hiller in a most moving portrait of More’s earth-bound wife, to name just two in a cast that represents the best in the British tradition of acting.

ON THE FACE OF IT, Steve McQueen’s naval engineer in The Sand Pebbles has absolutely nothing in common with a saint of the Catholic church. But he turns out in the long run (and what a long run it is) to be a very similar kind of white liberal hero.

The time: 1926. The place: the Yangtze River in China. The situation: the Americans have a navy gunboat, the San Pablo, patrolling the river to protect American interests and keep the peace in the face of Communist provocation. Sound familiar? It is, of course. The Americans, like the Russians, almost never make movies about current political questions. Instead they dramatize some parallel situation safely in the past. If we’re still around in 1980, then we may get a movie about Vietnam.

Anyway, Steve McQueen has in effect been drafted into the navy (the alternative was jail) and since he’s an independent sort of guy he keeps getting shifted around. In China his independence takes the form of trying to be nice to the “slope-heads" and falling in love with a missionary schoolteacher (gorgeous Candice Bergen, of all people to stick glasses on).

The squeeze comes when McQueen must choose between his public duty and his private conviction that the U. S. Navy has no business there. “How would you like it if the Chinese had a gunboat on the Mississippi?” he asks. But the captain is a flag-waver. “You only matter now as a symbol of your country,” he tells McQueen, while Candice dreams of the day when people can pledge allegiance to something beyond nations.

In the United States this picture has been interpreted as an angry attack on the U. S. policy in Vietnam, but to an outsider it seems rather an expression of anguish and guilt. Apart from the final battle, which is a decision taken in direct opposition to official orders, the Americans behave with utmost restraint, in the face of continual Communist bullying.

McQueen’s character certainly represents anti-war sentiment, but in the end he is forced to accept his public role — or possibly his duty — the matter is ambiguous — and so dies for who knows what. The main thing is that he dies pure: he has held out like Sir Thomas More for his own beliefs until the last possible moment, and, incidentally, he doesn’t have anything to do with women either, not even his beloved schoolteacher.