The film and play both depict the final years of Sir Thomas More, the 16th-century Lord Chancellor of England who refused to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul King Henry VIII of England's marriage to Catherine of Aragon and refused to take an Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England. Paul Scofield, who had played More in the West End stage premiere, also took the role in the film, starring alongside Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles and Susannah York. Also appearing are Nigel Davenport, Leo McKern, Corin Redgrave and, in one of his earliest screen roles, John Hurt.
The title reflects playwright Bolt's portrayal of More as the ultimate man of conscience and as remaining true to his principles and religion under all circumstances and at all times. Bolt borrowed the title from Robert Whittington, a contemporary of More, who in 1520 wrote of him:
More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.
The film covers the years 1529 to 1535, during the reign of King Henry VIII.
During a private late-night meeting at Hampton Court, Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England, chastises More for being the only member of the Privy Council to oppose Wolsey's attempts to obtain a divorce for King Henry VIII from the Vatican so that he can marry Anne Boleyn, as his present queen Catherine has not produced a male heir, risking another period of dynastic wars like the Wars of the Roses. More states that he can never go along with Wolsey's suggestion that they apply "pressure" on Church property and revenue in England. Unknown to More, the conversation is overheard by Wolsey's aide, Thomas Cromwell.
Returning to his home at Chelsea at dawn, More finds his young acquaintance Richard Rich waiting for his return to lobby for a position at Court. More recommends instead that Rich find a job as a teacher. Rich declines More's advice, saying that has little prestige. More finds his daughter Meg chatting with a brilliant young lawyer named William Roper, who announces his desire to marry her. The devoutly Catholic More states that he cannot give his blessing as long as Roper remains a Lutheran.
Some time later, Wolsey dies of a heart attack. King Henry appoints More as Lord Chancellor of England to succeed Wolsey. The King makes an "impromptu" visit to the More estate, but More remains unmoved as Henry alternates between threats, tantrums, and promises of unbounded Royal favour. After the King leaves, Cromwell promises Rich a position at Court in return for damaging information about More.
Roper, learning of More's quarrel with the King, reveals that his religious opinions have altered considerably: He declares that by attacking the Church, the King has become "the Devil's minister." More admonishes him to be more guarded as Rich arrives, pleading again for a position at Court. When More again refuses, Rich denounces More's steward as a spy for Thomas Cromwell. An unmoved More responds, "Of course, that's one of my servants."
Humiliated, Rich joins Cromwell in attempting to bring down More. Meanwhile, the King has Parliament declare him "Supreme Head of the Church of England" and demands that bishops and Parliament renounce all allegiance to the Pope. More quietly resigns as Lord Chancellor rather than accept the new order. His close friend, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, attempts to draw out his opinions in a friendly private chat, but More knows that the time for speaking openly of such matters is over.
Cromwell, in a meeting with Norfolk, implies that More's troubles would be over were he to attend the King's wedding to Anne Boleyn. When More declines the invitation, he is summoned again to Hampton Court, now occupied by Cromwell. More is interrogated, but refuses to answer. Infuriated, Cromwell declares that the King views him as a traitor, but allows him to return home.
Upon returning home, Meg informs her father that a new oath is being circulated and that all must take it or face charges of high treason. Initially, More says he would be willing to take the oath, provided it refers only to the King's marriage to Boleyn. Upon learning that it names the King as Supreme Head of the Church, More refuses to take it and is subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London.
More remains steadfast in his refusal to take the Oath and refuses to explain his objections, knowing that he cannot be convicted if he hasn't explicitly denied the King's supremacy. A request for new books to read backfires, resulting in confiscation of the books he has, and Rich removes them from More's cell.
More is finally brought to trial, but refuses to speak about the marriage or why he will not take the Oath, and cites his silence in defense. Rich then testifies that when he came to take away More's books, More told him he would not take the Oath because the King could not be Head of the Church, thus committing treason by contradicting the Act of Supremacy. More is convicted of treason on the perjured testimony of Rich, who has been made Solicitor General for Wales as a reward.
More says goodbye to his wife Alice, Meg and Roper, urging them not to try and defend him. With nothing left to lose, More denounces the King's actions as illegal, citing the Biblical basis for the authority of the Papacy over Christendom and further declaring that the Church's immunity to State interference is guaranteed both in Magna Carta and in the King's own Coronation Oath. As the audience screams in protest, More is condemned to death by beheading. Before his execution on Tower Hill, More pardons the executioner, and says, "I die His Majesty's good servant, but God's first."
A narrator intones the epilogue, listing the subsequent untimely deaths of the major characters, apart from Richard Rich, who "became Chancellor of England, and died in his bed."
Robert Bolt adapted the screenplay himself. The running commentary of The Common Man was deleted and the character was divided into the roles of the Thames boatman, More's steward, an innkeeper, the jailer from the Tower, the jury foreman and the executioner. The subplot involving the imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, was also excised. A few minor scenes were added to the play, for instance Wolsey's death, More's investiture as Chancellor, and the King's wedding to Anne Boleyn, to cover narrative gaps left by the exclusion of the Common Man.
The Brechtian staging of the final courtroom scene (which depicted the Jury as consisting of the Common Man and several sticks bearing the hats of the various characters he has played) is changed to a more naturalistic setting. Also, while the Duke of Norfolk was the judge both historically and in the play's depiction of the trial, the character of the Chief Justice (Jack Gwillim) was created for the film. Norfolk is still present, but plays little role in the proceedings.
The producers initially feared that Scofield was not a big enough name to draw in audiences, so the producers approached Richard Burton, who turned down the part. Laurence Olivier was also considered, but director Zinnemann demanded that Scofield be cast. He played More both in London's West End and on Broadway; the latter appearance led to a Tony Award.
Alec Guinness was the studio's first choice to play Cardinal Wolsey, and Peter O'Toole was the first choice to play Henry VIII. Richard Harris was also considered. Bolt wanted film director John Huston to play Norfolk, but he refused. Vanessa Redgrave was originally to have played Margaret, but she had a theatre commitment. She agreed to a cameo as Anne Boleyn on the condition that she not be billed in the part or mentioned in the previews.
To keep the budget at under $2 million, the actors all took salary cuts. Only Scofield, York, and Welles were paid salaries exceeding £10,000. For playing Rich, his first major film role, John Hurt was paid £3,000. Vanessa Redgrave appeared simply for the fun of it and refused to accept any money.
Leo McKern had played the Common Man in the original West End production of the show, but had been shifted to Cromwell for the Broadway production. He and Scofield are the only members of the cast to appear in both the stage and screen versions of the story. Vanessa Redgrave did appear as Lady Alice in a 1988 remake.
The film was a box office success, making $28,350,000 in the US alone, making it the fifth highest-grossing film of 1966.
It has received positive reviews from film critics, with an 82% "Fresh" rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 7.8/10, based on 28 reviews. The critics' consensus states: "Solid cinematography and enjoyable performances from Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw add a spark to this deliberately paced adaptation of the Robert Bolt play.". A. D. Murphy of Variety wrote: "Producer-director Fred Zinnemann has blended all filmmaking elements into an excellent, handsome and stirring film version of A Man for All Seasons."
Paul Scofield's performance was particularly praised. Kate Cameron of the New York Daily News said: "over all these fine performances, including Robert Shaw's opulent, bluff and forceful representation of the king, it is Scofield who dominates the screen with his genteel voice and steadfast refusal to kowtow to the king, even at the expense of his head." However, Pauline Kael gave the film a more critical review, writing: "There's more than a little of the school pageant in the rhythm of the movie: Though it's neater than our school drama coaches could make it, the figures group and say their assigned lines and move on."
In 1995, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of cinema, the Vatican listed it among the greatest movies of all time. In 1999, British Film Institute named A Man for All Seasons the 43rd greatest British film of all time. In 2008, it came 106th on Empire magazine's 500 Greatest Movies of All Time list.
The film was also entered into the 5th Moscow International Film Festival where Scofield won the award for Best Actor.