The Greatest Director You've Never Heard Of
Fred Zinnemann is one of the greatest Hollywood directors no one ever talks about. Dudes from the same era like John Ford and Billy Wilder still get a decent amount of press and cred—but not Zinnemann, even though he directed three major masterpieces. It's weird.
Like the screenwriter, Robert Bolt, Zinnemann liked lone individuals who took stands without any real support. His two other most famous movies, High Noon and From Here to Eternity, are definitely in the same ballpark as A Man for All Seasons (source).
Making Talk Fun
Transitioning a play to the screen is always tough, which makes A Man for All Seasons a great achievement for a director. Plays are pretty talky—when you go to the theater, you're not expecting to see car chases. But when you transition them to the screen—where people are expecting more physical action—you have to make that talkiness pop and do work. It needs to feel like the words are action.
Fortunately, the brilliance of A Man for All Seasons' dialogue and the way in which Zinnemann frames and presents it carries the film. The words are powerful enough to captivate an audience's attention (well, an adult audience's, anyway). (To provide a counter-example, August: Osage County was a critical success as a play, while receiving thumbs-sideways kind of reviews as a movie.)
Also, Zinnemann adds deft touches that, even if we don't notice them, seem to structure the way we feel about the movie and understand it. For example, he sets More's execution on a beautiful day—which makes us think of More's martyrdom as a natural and even beautiful act, as opposed to something fanatical and death-driven.
On the other hand, the death scene of the worldly and overly practical Cardinal Wolsey is set in a grim underground cellar. Gargoyles and frightening statuary also abound in London, where More's corrupt enemies live. (For more on this, check out our "Symbols and Tropes" page.)
So, while Zinnemann's direction might initially seem almost irrelevant in a movie so driven by talk, talk, and more talk… if we look closer, we can see that his direction was really important, in subtle yet significant ways. Hey—the Academy Awards certainly thought so.