In 1967, the 39th Academy Awards were dominated by one film: A Man for All Seasons (1966). It was nominated for ten Oscars; in the end, it won six. By any measure that was a phenomenal haul, adding to its already existing international awards and the commercial success then being enjoyed worldwide. That the film’s subject matter was the life of a saint, Thomas More, and that it dealt with issues of faith and conscience, made its achievements all the more remarkable.
In hindsight, what is even more striking though is that this film was to be the last of its kind. Not that the historical drama ceased to be made, but rather that a different aesthetic was soon to prevail as Hollywood entered upon a new era. Thereafter, motion pictures were to be perceived no longer as entertainments but as statements, not reflecting society but changing it. When the martyr saint died on screen, symbolically it marked the moment of a putting to death of what movies had been until then, and those that carried out that ‘execution’ were henceforth to proclaim the birth of a New Hollywood.
A Man for All Seasons was based upon the Robert Bolt play of the same name. A triumph from its first staging in 1960, it was soon transferred to the screen. The play was experimental in the staging devices used; the movie version was to have no such experimentation. Instead, the source material became a well-acted, professionally directed film production that looked and sounded every bit the historical epic. As such, although made in the England of 1965, it could have been filmed at any time in the previous thirty years. It was traditional storytelling that conformed—artistically and morally—to the industry standards that had existed for decades.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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What it also represented was part of a trend in mainstream filmmaking then trying to compete with television by being “bigger” (Cinemascope), “brighter” (Technicolor) and epic. At the start of the 1960s, many films were bigger and brighter but only succeeded in being bombastic. Historical dramas, such as Cleopatra (1963), had almost bankrupted studios as well as putting off potential audiences by their length. By the mid 1960s, year-on-year cinema attendance was decreasing. With the waning power of the Studios and the disappearance of its audience, it was clear that Hollywood needed something to revive its fortunes. Little did the studio executives know, however, that a relatively new movement many miles away would come to provide that something, and, in so doing, would dramatically change the face of American cinema.
In the early 1950s a group of French cinephiles unable to raise the capital to make films had begun writing about them instead. The journal for this was Cahiers du cinéma. During the following decade, the likes of Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol would decry, debate and disagree about the existing film canon as well as pontificate on the new directions cinema should take. By the end of the decade, they were at last making films. Soon, they were winning prizes. These so-called “art house” movies drew small audiences at first, but that was not the point. What they had managed to do was to strike a cord with a new audience, one young and educated. In addition, what they had captured on screen was something of the new spirit then abroad. It was one that refused to accept past mores as fixed while at the same time proposing alternate ways of living. French Cinema’s influence was soon felt in other similar movements, notably in England and Czechoslovakia. It was termed a “New Wave,” and, as a new decade opened, European filmmakers were riding high upon it; it seemed only a matter of time before this “wave” would crash against a stagnating Hollywood.
While A Man for All Seasons was being shot, another film was in gestation. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was the brainchild of two East Coast journalists, Benton and Newman. They had no experience of the motion picture business but what they did have was enthusiasm. Like many of their college-educated generation, they ignored what they considered to be the staid output of Hollywood preferring instead the New Wave European films then beginning to win American audiences. Remarkably, their first draft of the script was passed to one of the then emerging elite of French Cinema, Godard. Initially, he agreed to direct the movie. Eventually, however, the French man dropped it, but as he did so the film fell to a fledging Hollywood actor, not quite then a star name, Warren Beatty. He was shown the script and was excited by it. Unusually for the time, Beatty not only wanted to star in the film but also to produce it. What had been an avant-garde project suddenly moved to the mainstream.
The initial drafts of Bonnie and Clyde were heavily influenced by the French New Wave in general, and by one film in particular Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961). That film had been a major critical success for the new movement. It was light years away in tone and content, direction and editing to the norm then in Hollywood. That first draft of Bonnie and Clyde was as explicit in its violence and sexual content as European films had become—too much so even for the new star and producer, Beatty, who had some of these elements toned down. Nevertheless, Beatty managed to interest Warner Brothers in the production and distribution of the movie. Jack Warner, in his last days as head of the studio, was pitched the idea as a ‘homage’ to the gangster movies that his studio had produced in the 1930s. Symbolically, it would be one of Warner’s last releases with Jack Warner at the helm.
In 1966, while Bonnie and Clyde was being filmed on location in Texas, A Man for All Seasons, to almost universal acclaim, was released across the United States. And when, a year later, the latter was being showered with accolades, the former was failing at the box office. From the start, Bonnie and Clyde divided critics. The difference of opinion was more than just about whether the film was any good. Those who decried it were seen as ‘reactionary’ by those who lauded it, blamed for not perceiving the subtle criticisms of contemporary society contained within it. The use of excessive violence, not seen before in mainstream Hollywood, was excused as “realistic,” the sexual explicitness equally so. The critics who queried the folk hero status granted to murderous bank robbers were told that they had missed the point. It was clear that Bonnie and Clyde and its reception was about more than artistic differences.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of two critics. Bosley Crowther had been movie critic at the New York Times for decades. His influence was wide reaching and long standing. He hated Bonnie and Clyde. Over a number of months, he wrote three pieces in the Times saying so. In any event, the film’s initial box office release was poor—partly because Jack Warner didn’t like it either, and, with little publicity, the studio buried it. Two things were to reverse this. Beatty went on the offensive within Warner Brothers arguing that it deserved a second chance at the all-important American market having received some critical and box office success abroad. Perhaps even more significantly, and what really changed things, was the entry into the debate of a then barely known movie critic Pauline Kael.
Kael loathed movie critics such as Crowther and what they represented. She wrote a lengthy defense of Bonnie and Clyde for The New Republic. It refused to run it. She took it to The New Yorker who did; and, with that, the critical tide turned. Soon, other critics were re-evaluating—or, perhaps more accurately, recanting. Beatty’s movie, thereafter, was running again in movie theatres and this time to packed audiences. Shortly after, Crowther was removed from his post, while Kael was offered a permanent position as movie critic at The New Yorker. A new era in film criticism had just begun.
As it did, another era ended. The real ‘victim’ of Bonnie and Clyde was the Production Code. Self-regulation had been with Hollywood since the 1920s, and under pressure from the Catholic Church, among others, was codified in the 1930s. There then followed a proscriptive list of what could and could not form subject matter for movies desiring a seal of approval from what was to come to be known as the Production Code. In short, without its approval widespread distribution was all but impossible. By the 1960s, the Code, under pressure for over a decade or more, was starting to appear redundant. The more explicit European films were regularly shown in American movie theaters without any Code approval and, perhaps more importantly, were proving a huge draw at the box office. It was clear there was a new audience for such material with or without any officially sanctioned seal of approval. By the end of 1967, Time ran a front page accompanied by images from Bonnie and Clyde proclaiming: “The New Cinema…Violence…Sex…Art”; and, with that, the Code was finished.
But then Bonnie and Clyde was always more than simply a movie; it had an agenda. It was this that the critics had picked up on as both camps saw on screen something else. Crowther saw the movie for what it was and dismissed it. Kael saw all sorts within its frames but, crucially, linked them to the social and political changes occurring in the United States.
Bonnie and Clyde may have been set in the Depression of the 1930s, but the attitudes and politics on display were those of the then emerging 1960s Counter Culture. The protagonists and those they enlist along the way in their criminal enterprises are not merely outside society, they oppose society’s foundation: the rule of law. In their opposition, the Barrow gang create an alternate society. While not quite a commune, it is one where the gang make their own rules, enjoying a creed of free living and free loving, seemingly at no cost. As the film’s publicity stated: “They’re young, they’re in love … and they kill people.” In contrast, those they murder or rob rarely speak in this movie, and neither do the authorities that set out to capture them. The latter are portrayed as a heavy-handed mob lacking in the humor, warmth and humanity that the audience is made to perceive in the gang. This is especially so given that, unlike the Warner Gangster movies of the 1930s, the moral compass appears to reside within this criminal group not outside it. Described by some as “romantic revolutionaries,” these sociopaths, as personally dysfunctional as publicly deadly, were to become the emblems of the new epoch opening in American cinema and, consequently, the wider debates it sparked and influenced. When released, the movie soon found its audience—with the young and, inevitably, with those “opposed to the Establishment.”
When released, Crowther had been extravagant in his praise for A Man for All Seasons: “a picture that inspires admiration, courage and thought.” Kael less so, damning it with faint praise “pleasant … safe,” and comparing it to a well performed, if worthy, school play. Nevertheless, within a year or so, Crowther was gone, with, for decades thereafter, Kael enjoying prominence at the forefront of movie criticism. Perhaps not surprisingly, the next year’s Oscar nominations were to be dominated by one film: Bonnie and Clyde. New Hollywood had arrived.
St. Thomas More had died knowing a new order was being installed. It was one that cloaked its lusts and greed in talk of “conscience” free of external constraint. The break with Rome and the subsequent sack of Church lands and property was carried out with talk of high principle but in reality with much baser motives. More’s death marks the end of Catholic England, a legacy with which we still live. It is ironic, therefore, that the saint’s cinematic alter ego was to die at a time when another new order was being established, albeit one on the Silver Screen. This time it was New Hollywood that rejected any external sense of moral restraint in filmmaking. Instead it would come to promote values and morals very different from what had gone before, and, in all its various guises, that is a cultural legacy still in our midst.
Photo caption: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, from left: Paul Scofield, director Fred Zinnemann on set, 1966. (Photo credit: amfas1966-fsct07)