Best Picture Catchup: A Man For All Seasons, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Tom Jones

Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.

I decided at first to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services. Although, as I near the end of that goal, I’ve decided I might try to watch all of the them, if possible. I’ll still try to knock out the post-1950s ones first since I only have a few left but I’ve already started on a few earlier pictures. 

I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners going back to 1950 and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997.

I recently watched six Best Picture winners from the ceremonies of 1967, 1964, 1958, 1957, 1952 and 1947. 

I only have 7 left to watch post-1950 (“The English Patient,” “Ben-Hur,” “Gigi, “My Fair Lady,” “All The Kings Men,” “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “All About Eve” and 15 to watch going back to 1929 (basically everything except the ones I’ve seen: “Casablanca,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “You Can’t Take it With You” and “It Happened One Night.”).

Without further ado, here’s three more entries to cross off my list.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)

This didn’t look like a film that would interest me. A dry period-piece about religion and royalty. No battle scenes and the star actor is someone I’ve never heard of. But “A Man for All Seasons” really does hold up with great performances from Paul Scofield, Orson Welles, John Hurt and Robert Shaw. It tells the story of Sir Thomas More, a 16th-century Lord Chancellor who refused both to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry VIII’s marriage so he could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn and have a son. He also wouldn’t take an oath and declare the king the head of the newly created Church of England (a move he made when the Vatican wouldn’t annul his marriage). 

Sir Thomas More is a man of principle and everybody pleads with him to just give in and take the oath, sign the papers and “go along to get along.” He sticks with his morals and principles, even though it leads to a tragic ending for him. It kind of reminded me of “The Crucible” in that vein. I love seeing stories about characters with strong moral compasses and this one is filled with quotable lines to use in any situation in which you might doubt yourself. 

One of my favorite lines that More says is: “When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their own public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” There’s a lot of truth in that. 

I also loved a line he says after he finds out he’s betrayed by a young colleague who now was appointed to a prime position in Wales.

“It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?” he exclaims.

Scofield deserved his Best Actor Oscar and I can see why this film took the top prize. Although you could make an argument for two other Best Picture nominated films that year: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which was nominated in all four acting categories and won two, and “Alfie,” a Michael Caine-starring vehicle that I absolutely adore (even if it drags toward the end.).

TOM JONES (1963)

So this might be my least favorite Best Picture winner I’ve ever seen. There are other winners that are just undeserving compared to the movies they beat, such as “Shakespeare in Love” beating “Saving Private Ryan” or “Crash” beating “Brokeback Mountain” or “Green Book” over “A Star is Born.” But those winners are still good movies that I enjoy. I didn’t enjoy “Tom Jones” and while other Best Picture winners like “Out of Africa” or “Chariots of Fire” might have been slow and kind of boring, I felt “Tom Jones” was just soul-crushingly pretentious. 

I have no problem with period piece movies. I just praised “A Man for All Seasons.” I’m OK with slow-burn movies that linger in silence. I loved the long patient scenes in “Lawrence of Arabia.” But “Tom Jones” doesn’t seem worth the pay off. It’s billed as a comedy. I did not laugh.

I really, really wanted to like this movie. I think Albert Finney is a great actor and “Tom Jones” is one of the lesser known Best Picture winners, so there was a desire in me to like this film. I like telling people about a great movie that most haven’t seen or have overlooked. But this one is tough. 

If you look on Rotten Tomatoes, critics loved this movie, making it 86 percent fresh. Audiences aren’t as kind, only giving it a 58 percent score. Every review written in the last 20 years looking back on this picture admits that it hasn’t aged well. 

It’s a bawdy sex comedy with British humor that perhaps doesn’t translate well to American audiences. Although, I like Monty Python and Benny Hill and Fawlty Towers. I keep trying to find a reason that I should like this movie that others love.

I know the humor is subtle, but it’s so subtle, I’m not even sure it’s there. It’s like putting only the tiniest dash of salt on a dish and then being surprised when someone calls it bland tasting.

I felt like I was dumb for not enjoying this movie but whatever: It’s as bland as his name.

I think Fellini’s “8 1/2” should have won, although it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (only Best Director). You can also make an argument that “Cleopatra,” “How the West Was Won” or “Hud” would have been more deserving winners.

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)

A nice palate cleanser after that suspense-less period piece, this is a film that I immediately loved.

William Holden is becoming one of my favorite actors of all time. I’ve always loved “Sunset Boulevard” and I rewatched it recently and loved it even more. The same can be said for “Network” which I also rewatched. Both of those films are top 100 of all time for me. I recently checked out his Western film “The Wild Bunch” and while I didn’t love it as much as critics (they ranked it in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies ever) I appreciated Holden’s performance. 

This movie is masterfully directed by David Lean, who would win Best Director and would later direct another Best Picture winner in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

It’s a big beautiful war movie about prisoners of war in a Japanese labor camp that are being forced to construct a bridge. Alec Guinness, best known as Obi Wan Kenobi, gives a fantastic performance as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, a man who follows the rules to a fault, even if it isn’t in the best interest of his soldiers. He resists escape and instead begins to take pride in building the bridge for his captors, saying that decades from now people will see the bridge and know it was built by British soldiers. The Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito, is a man who is so insecure that he can’t figure out how to build the bridge that he resents the soldiers for their success. And Holden plays Lieutenant Commander Shears, an American who is reluctant to help and seems to really only care about his own personal safety. There’s no real hero in this piece.

I loved it because of its moral complexity. It asks difficult questions and doesn’t give easy answers. Even the final line of “Madness,” can be interpreted many ways. It would be overly simplified to say this film is just about “the violence of war.”

I recently watched Spike Lee’s masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” and what I love about that movie is that it’s hard to tell which character did the right thing. Every character has good points and bad points. It’s the same with “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” So much to analyze and deconstruct.

And yet it’s not just a psychological drama. There’s action. There’s suspense. There are big epic set pieces. It’s a long movie that never drags. That’s not an easy feat.

One of my colleagues said it’s the number one movie of all time. I wouldn’t go so far, especially since I just watched it for the first time. But I already know this film will earn a spot in my top 100 movies ever made. 

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