How does the use of water and mud motifs express the themes of “A Man for All Seasons”?

Director Fred Zinnemann’s Best Picture Oscar winner A Man for All Seasons (1966) focuses on honor, integrity, and the courage to adhere to one’s convictions no matter the consequences.

Henry the VIII, played by a larger-than-life Robert Shaw, appoints Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield in an Oscar-winning performance) as Lord Chancellor of England in order to gain an ally in his ongoing battle against the Catholic Church. Prior to the events of the film, the Pope gave Henry dispensation to marry his brother’s widow Catherine of Aragon (a union considered by many to be incestuous). Henry later requests a divorce, arguing that the marriage should never have been allowed, so that he can marry Anne Boleyn (a wordless Vanessa Redgrave). More proves not to be the pliable servant that Henry expected and refuses to compromise his morality for the benefit of the king. What More objects to in men like Henry is that they live by no codes; they have no core belief systems, and they change the rules on a whim to suit themselves. More says to Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) that when a man in office ignores his own morality, he leads his country to chaos.

The water and mud motifs in the film embody the themes involving politics and morality. There is a great deal of going back and forth by boat between the seat of government and More’s home. This journey comes to symbolize the ethical distance between the self-serving King’s political manipulations and More’s religious morality. At one point, because he is considered out of favor with the King, the water taxi boatmen will not shuttle More. He must find his own way home – an incident which emphasizes the isolation of the person who takes a moral stand against those in power.

When the King visits Thomas, he jumps from his boat into the mud. He laughs and, following his example, the members of his entourage all jump into the earthy slime. The mud symbolizes the moral muck in which the King and his devotees now reside. Henry’s filthy mind and base instincts are seen in how he lusts after Thomas’ daughter, but turns away from her when she exhibits the beauty of her mind with her fluent Latin. Ironically, the man of no morals seeks the approval of the man of values to legitimize his selfish, carnal ways. In another scene, Richard Rich (John Hurt), who betrays More by perjuring himself, falls backward into the mud after he is offered a post for his collaboration. He too is now depicted as wallowing in corruption.

Thomas, as opposed to these other men of no ethical substance, has a moral prerogative that doesn’t bend for political expediency. That attribute makes him “a man for all seasons.”