The Lion in Winter (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by J. E. Smyth


Produced by Joseph E. Levine, Jane C. Nusbaum, and Martin Poll; directed by Anthony Harvey; screenplay by James Goldman; cinematography by Douglas Slocombe; edited by John Bloom; music by John Barry; sound by Simon Kaye and Chris Greenham; costumes by Margaret Furse; starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, Jane Merrow, John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Nigel Stock. Blu-ray, color, 134 min., 1968. A Kino Lorber release.

Spending Christmas with one’s immediate family members can be a risky situation. In The Lion in Winter, James Goldman imagined what the holidays might have been like for the Plantagenets in 1183. For two hours, the members of one of history’s most powerful and dysfunctional ruling families savage each other over the spiced wine. Goldman’s script was an actor’s dream—visceral, lacerating, a high-stakes drama that demanded stars every bit as dangerous and charismatic as the legendary protagonists.

Peter O’Toole claimed he’d never seen director Noel Willman’s 1966 Broadway production of The Lion in Winter starring Rosemary Harris as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Robert Preston as Henry II. He read the Chicago-born playwright’s script in London, and knew instantly that he had found his next project—but only if he could get Katharine Hepburn to play Eleanor. It would be O’Toole’s second attempt at Henry Plantagenet. In the 1964 screen adaptation of Becket, his sparring partner was Richard Burton, and the film, despite interesting performances from the two stars, was stately and rather dull, a constant hazard for filmmakers lured by historical drama, prestige, and that deadliest of dead words—heritage. The duo was more lively off the set in the pub. In contrast, The Lion in Winter pivoted on Queen Eleanor and her relationships with her estranged husband and sons. O’Toole sent Hepburn the script and told her to take off the widow’s weeds for the recently dead Spencer Tracy. She did, and gave the best performance of her career (one that saw her win her third Academy Award as Best Actress).

The unhappy couple in a rare quiet moment.

  Eleanor (Hepburn) contemplates revenge in jail (flattering light by Douglas Slocombe).

Eleanor (Hepburn) contemplates revenge in jail (flattering light by Douglas Slocombe).

But so did O’Toole and newcomers Anthony Hopkins (the future Richard the Lionheart), Timothy Dalton (King Philip of France), John Castle (Geoffrey), and Nigel Terry (John or “that walking pustule,” according to his brother Richard). In an interview accompanying the new Kino Lorber 50th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray release, director Anthony Harvey recalled that it was Hepburn who created the strong family atmosphere on the set. Well-known for her respect for the crew, she also mentored and supported the younger actors. She allegedly told Hopkins not to act, just to be—a method she wasn’t exactly known for following! O’Toole was on his best behavior with her, which meant that he curbed his drinking, arrived on set promptly, and let her play the star. He sat openly at her feet, silently took her not-so-gentle barbs (her nickname for him was “Pig”), and ate the copious amounts of chocolate and champagne she brought for everyone. Hepburn was everyone’s Aunt Kate, and undoubtedly felt secure in her little fiefdom, with Douglas Slocombe’s gauzy cinematography masking her age, and the modest, relatively inexperienced director Anthony Harvey (The Dutchman, 1966) allowing his actors free rein on location in France (the Abbaye de Montmajour at Arles, the location for Chinon), Ireland (Ardmore Studios), and Wales (Pembroke Castle and Marloes Sands).

Hepburn had always exhibited a tendency to overact—on and off the set. Her mannerisms, the Anglicized speech, the queenly distain (the press didn’t call her Katharine of Arrogance for no reason) had once alienated Hollywood, but by the 1960s, the world—rather than Hepburn—had mellowed. She hadn’t played a captive queen since Mary of Scotland back in 1936, but she liked “big operators.” The famous attitude, stylized acting, and superstar ego could appear quite natural in a twelfth-century castle.

Still, Harvey risked provoking her at one point, telling her she was at her best when she was “quiet and simple.” Not particularly apt words to describe Eleanor, who from the cradle had to navigate hostile men intent on stealing her province and her fortune, trading her children like chess pieces, and keeping her under lock and key after one too many diplomatic slip-ups. No man—whether Henry II or a film director—was going to shut up Eleanor or Hepburn and get away with it this time. But Hepburn occasionally took Harvey’s advice, and her performance is fascinating in its range of moods, its layers, raw power, and studied intelligence. Her scenes of Eleanor playing the concerned mother, “quiet and simple,” are a marvel, simply because anyone who has ever seen Hepburn perform is waiting for the explosive theatricality that is her trademark and her ultimate truth as a screen star. Hepburn’s father once said that she only wanted to become an actress “because it is the most conspicuous way to show off,” and, in Eleanor, she found the consummate show-off, running her three-ringed familial circus and so enraging her husband with jealousy that he actually retches and rolls around on the floor.

An awkward reunion with her sons. Hepburn flanked by Nigel Terry, Anthony Hopkins, and John Castle.

O’Toole’s ability to play rage rendered his Henry one of the best screen performances of any decade. A number of critics over the years have drawn attention to his agonized, wrathful face in close-up upon discovering his sons’ collective betrayal. This moment, it has been argued, is emblematic of O’Toole’s genius as an actor. Yet, even more stunning is the devastating curse he hurls at God on the steps of his castle: “You dare to damn me, do you? Well, I’ll damn you back. God Damn You!” Here was the one man of his era who could defy God, fate, and empires, but who was nearly destroyed by his own family. Alone, huddled on the ramparts of the castle on Christmas Eve, Henry looks up at the stars, not searching for revelations or salvation, but, in the absence of love, for revenge. He is the Prometheus of modern Europe.

Few scenes in any film are as emotionally exhausting to watch. O’Toole’s Henry is not a “cold and bloody bastard” as his son John claims; there is a boyish devilry and genuine Everyman quality in his portrayal of Henry, and a paternalistic warmth that Hepburn’s Eleanor, even in her gilded garden sequence with Anthony Hopkins’s wounded Richard, lacks. The real-life Eleanor bore over ten children and was reputedly a doting mother in spite of her plotting. But the possessiveness, love, frustration, and desolation of motherhood are merely “played” by Hepburn, the “big operator” and politician. James Goldman and Hepburn could not render the humanity of the queen beyond the scenes where she confronts her withered beauty before a mirror. The female star’s image defines the audience’s access to Eleanor, even in private.

  As Henry proves, a king is more than a man who puts his ass on purple cushions.

As Henry proves, a king is more than a man who puts his ass on purple cushions.

There was more drama in the history than any playwright could imagine. Eleanor had been imprisoned since 1173 for leading a revolt with her eldest son, young Henry, against her husband, Henry II. For the next ten years, her sons Henry, Richard, and Geoffrey continued to plot for a greater share of political power within their father’s domain as well as for their mother’s freedom. By the spring of 1183, following another abortive revolt, the “Young King” fled to his mother’s beloved province of Aquitaine, where he died in agony from dysentery. His last words were to his father, begging him to release his mother from imprisonment. For once, the father listened to the son’s plea: Eleanor was reinstalled in Normandy, where she enjoyed a greater freedom of movement and could again see her remaining sons (her daughters had years before all been packed off to foreign lands as marriage chattel).

Any part of Eleanor’s life would have made a riveting film. She was Queen of France for a while, and then divorced her rather dull and dutiful first husband to marry Henry and become Queen of England. She did go on a Crusade when she was Queen of France; she did ride bare-breasted part of the way to Damascus to raise the morale of the troops; and she may have poisoned her second husband’s toothy Welsh mistress, Rosamund Clifford. She was the patroness of the French chivalric poetry that raised Europe from the muck of the Middle Ages, and she supported the development of the female religious order at Fontevraud Abbey, where she later was interred. Eleanor was then the richest and most powerful woman in Europe, and perhaps the most legendary queen in history. Her remains were scattered to the four winds by French revolutionaries in the eighteenth century.

Yet there is no evidence that she could speak or read English or that she could write even her own name (at the time, male and female monarchs usually left these details to scribes). There is also no evidence that the Plantagenet family spent Christmas together in Chinon, or that Eleanor still had to fight for Richard’s status as heir after the Young King’s death, or that her husband contemplated annulling their marriage in order that he might sire more sons with Princess Alais (Jane Merrow is acceptably nubile, but how much better the winsome plaything of older men, Sarah Miles, would have been in the role). The film is largely fictional. There is, however, some evidence to suggest that the film’s most outrageous and hilarious scene between Eleanor and Henry was true: Count Geoffrey, Henry II’s hot, blond father, was reputedly one of the queen’s many lovers when she was Queen of France. (But whether Henry was “in the next room when [they] did it,” as Eleanor sneers, we’ll never know for sure).

Quality time with your father... Henry (O’Toole) dares his son to kill him.

The events occurred nearly a millennium ago. What the actors, Harvey, Simon Kaye, John Barry, and Douglas Slocombe all understood perfectly was the sound and look of the period—the mood, the viscerality of the experience of trying to stay alive in twelfth-century Europe. Death was as sure for princes as it was for peasants. This is not a pretty historical film, full of sumptuous tableaux, heaving bosoms, and gilt-edged ceremony. Henry strides around the castle in a shabby leather jerkin, wearing the crown and a fur robe only during a brief, indifferent ceremony for the visiting young King of France (Dalton). The props don’t matter—the power is in the performances. As Harvey remarked, “My main concern was not [to make] another historical film about pretty pictures, that the thing would give a really primitive, desperate look: little fireplaces, people huddled in corners shivering.” When Henry wakes the morning of Eleanor’s arrival, his bare hands smash the ice in the barrel of water he uses for his ablutions. He stands in front of fires, warming his backside, grinning roguishly at the King of France. When fires don’t warm his aging bones enough, he fights—sparring with his favorite son John or skirmishing with Eleanor.

In an age of war, disease, and death, what were the odds of any one man or woman making a difference to civilization, raging against the darkness that comes for everyone? That two such people should exist and marry and spend much of their lifetimes fighting each other, building up kingdoms and destroying them, is a miracle almost as rare as a resurrected carpenter being hailed as a deity.

Richard (Anthony Hopkins) confronts his impending execution without blinking.

There are few films that convey the sight and spirit of an age as evocatively as this. No screenplay in the past fifty years has had dialog with such old-fashioned, histrionic brilliance—indeed, in listening for the nuance of each word, one sometimes forgets to breathe. John Barry’s Academy Award-winning score is every bit as inspired—with the Latin choral music and chants accompanying the opening credits, Eleanor’s arrival at Chinon, and Richard’s joust (“Media Vita in Morte Sumus”) particularly apt. Did Harvey have much more to do than follow the actors around and let them be? I’ve been ambivalent about directors in the past, but not about Harvey’s work here. His directorial decisions make this more than just another filmed play about English history starring actors who sound prettier than they look. The decade is full of them—ranging from the educational (A Man for All Seasons, 1967) to the very long and silly (Camelot, 1967) to the occasionally inspired (Anne of the Thousand Days, 1969).

In his commentary, Harvey winces charmingly over the occasional zooms, retrospectively disliking trendy, attention-seeking camerawork. These zooms, however, aren’t particularly bothersome—after all, we’re guided through this long-gone world by an eye with a contemporary regard for stars and performance. As unimportant proles in this royal spectacle, we should be pulled and pushed around. But, like Harvey, I prefer the more humble, simple images: the mother and son standing in the waning, golden light of midwinter; the mud and sweat and warm wine; the rangy wolfhounds and quarrelling chickens cluttered at the top of the castle steps, disturbing any ceremony; and the ragged little girl, held up on her father’s shoulders to see the passing of the legendary queen with two crowns. After decades of viewing this film, I can close my eyes anywhere and feel the cold and see the shadows crowding round the aging legends. Peter O’Toole’s bleak, angry stare into the empty sky is unforgettable.

J. E. Smyth is author of several books on film, including, most recently, Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2018).

You may purchase the Blu-ray of The Lion in Winter here.

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 3