The Lion in Winter (1968) Starring: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton. Directed by Anthony Harvey. Screenplay by James Goldman. Based on the play, The Lion in Winter by James Goldman. Produced by Martin Poll. Run Time: 135 minutes. U.K. Color. History, Drama
If you think you have a dysfunctional family, spend Christmas with Henry Plantagenet’s and you’ll truly appreciate how normal yours seems by comparison. That seems to be the point of The Lion in Winter, a historical drama starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. Based on the play by the same name, which premiered at the Ambassador Theater on Broadway on March 3, 1966, the film is an example of historical fiction.
In 1183, King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) summons his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), whom he has imprisoned for 10 years in Salisbury Tower for her part in civil wars and plots against him. Henry has called a Christmas Court at Chinon Castle to determine which of their three surviving sons, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), or John (Nigel Terry), will be named successor to the crown. At 50, Henry figures he is near the end of his life and with the death of his heir, the Young King Henry, earlier during the year, the decision on succession requires immediate attention. (The film avoids the fact that Young Henry was killed during the course of a campaign in the Limousin against his father and his brother Richard. It was common at the time for the heir apparent to be crowned during the reign of the Senior King, so as to avoid issues of succession.)
Also present are Henry's mistress, Princess Alais [pronounced like Alice] (Jane Merrow), who has been promised as wife to the new heir, and her 18-year-old brother, Philip (Timothy Dalton), the King of France. Alais, who was raised by Eleanor as her daughter has grown into her 23 year-old replacement for Henry’s affections. Philip is there to settle the treaty that lead to his sister’s betrothal. He demands that if she is not to marry the heir, the treaty will be nullified and lands given to Henry would be returned to France.
|Jane Merrow plays Princess Alais. She is both promised to the king|
of France and is also the object of King Henry's (Peter O'Toole) affections.
Henry, who proves to be more impulsive than decisive, chooses John as his successor. John is portrayed as a spoilt boy of 16, who is probably afraid of his own shadow. Alais makes no effort to hide her displeasure with marrying John, whom, she remarks, smells like compost.
|Anthony Hopkins plays the eldest of the three sons, Richard.|
Eleanor, fully aware that Henry doesn’t really care about any of his three sons, proclaims that the throne rightfully belongs to the eldest, Richard. Almost immediately, everyone plots to attain their own selfish ends: Eleanor offers to yield Aquitaine to Henry if Richard is named heir. [Not explained in the film, Aquitaine is a region of France which Eleanor originally ruled as Duchess. In 1137, she married Louis VII of France and possession passed to France. However, the marriage was annulled 1152 and when she married Henry II in 1154, Aquitaine became an English possession. It would remain one until 1453 when it was annexed by France at the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War. Because of her annulled marriage to his father, Eleanor is also the step-mother to Philip.] Geoffrey, a typical middle child who is neglected by both parents, conspires with John and Philip to rob Richard of the throne. Henry, meanwhile, confesses to Alais that he intends to get his way without giving her up.
|Eleanor conspires with her sons, here pictured Richard and John (Nigel |
Terry), to ally with the King of France against Henry.
Eleanor and her sons decide that an alliance with the King of France might solve all their problems, and Eleanor sends Richard to convince Philip of the merit of their cause. But he is beaten to the punch by Geoffrey and John, who have come looking for an army to back John on the throne and Geoffrey as his Chancellor. While they hide, Richard comes into the Philip’s chamber, where a previous homosexual affair is recalled and Philip, just as he had done to John and Geoffrey, promises to support Richard.
Richard hides behind a tapestry when Henry arrives to continue his negotiations with Philip about settling the treaty. Thinking he has won the negotiations, Henry starts to leave, but Philip stops him. The youthful French king has disdain for his own father, but more for Henry and with a certain amount of glee he exposes the homosexual bent of Richard, the treachery of Geoffrey, and the disloyalty of John.
|Timothy Dalton plays Philip, the young King of France, who has his own priorities in negotiations.|
Outraged, Henry disowns his sons on the spot and demands an annulment from Eleanor, declaring his intentions to marry Alais and father a new heir with her. When he plans to go to Rome to get the pope to annul the marriage, she threatens him with a rebellion while he’s gone. To avoid that, he decides to imprison his sons in the castle’s dungeon while he’s out of the country. But Alais insists that Henry execute his sons to protect any child she might bear him.
Intent on carrying out her wishes, Henry descends to the dungeon, but Eleanor gets there first and arms the three princes with knives to aide their escape. But Richard refuses to run. Henry, with Alais, arrives and gets into a knife fight with his sons. All of them are shown to be afraid. When John makes an ill-advised lunge at his father, he is easily wrestled to the ground and has a knife at his throat. But Henry doesn’t kill him.
|Eleanor arms her three sons, Geoffrey (John Castle), Richard, and John.|
However, he pulls out his sword and declares that all three are to be put to death. But when he raises his sword over Richard's head, he can’t bring himself to go through with it and the three sons make their escape. Left alone, Eleanor and Henry, adversaries, realize that there is a bond between them that is too strong to be broken by a struggle for power.
Christmas morning, with nothing resolved, Henry escorts Eleanor to the barge that will return her to prison.
Sadly, that sort of sums up the film; nothing is resolved. Sometimes hard to follow, after two and a quarter hours we’re sort of back to square one. While there is some very good dialogue spoken (this was originally a play after all) and the acting is very good, Hepburn would win one of her Academy Awards for Best Actress for her role as Eleanor, the film was overall dissatisfying. Perhaps a more intimate knowledge of peerage and an encyclopedic knowledge of English history would have helped going in. Things are not explained in the film and sometimes events become confusing to the unknowledgeable amongst us.
While all of the characters really existed, some of the plot points are fictional. I am no English history scholar, but I have found out about some of the fictionalized history involved. The play and the movie take place during Christmas (much of it taking place Christmas Eve into Christmas morning) at Henry II’s castle in Chinon, Anjou, Angevin Empire, [which is in modern day France]. There wasn’t a Christmas Court at Chinon that year. And there is no evidence that Alais was Henry’s mistress, though Richard would use it as a reason to resist marrying her.
Henry would live another six years, dying, no surprise, after a battle with Philip and Richard, who had joined forces. After surrendering and capitulating to their demands, Henry returned to Chinon where John publicly sided with Richard in the conflict. The shock and a fever led to Henry II’s death on July 6, 1189. Son Richard, aka Richard the Lionhearted, succeeded him to the throne.
Peter O’Toole, who became a major film star six years earlier in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), plays Henry II for the second time, having first played the part in Beckett (1964). O’Toole, who was known as much for his drinking as his acting, gave many memorable performances in such films as The Ruling Class (1972), Man of La Mancha (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), My Favorite Year (1982) and Venus (2006). He died in December 2013.
|Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter.|
Katharine Hepburn was an American treasure. Once considered box-office poison, Hepburn would have a film career that lasted from A Bill of Divorcement (1932) until Love Affair (1994). She would be nominated 12 times for the Academy’s Best Actress Award, winning it four times. In addition to The Lion in Winter, she would win for her performances in Morning Glory (1933), Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967) and On Golden Pond (1981). She is perhaps best known for her on screen chemistry and off screen romance with the married Spencer Tracy. They would appear together in Woman of the Year (1942), Keeper of the Flame (1942), Without Love (1945), The Sea of Grass (1947), State of the Union (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957) and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
Of the three sons, Anthony Hopkins shines as Richard, a brave knight/mommy’s boy. Hopkins was a relative newcomer to films in 1968 as Lion in Winter was only his second film appearance. He had been acting since appearing on stage in the Swansea Little Theatre’s production of Have a Cigarette (1960). Perhaps best known for his Academy Award winning performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) as well as its sequel Hannibal (2001), Hopkins is still working today appearing in such films as Thor (2011), Hitchcock (2012), Red 2 (2013), Thor: The Dark World(2013) and Noah (2014).
|Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton in The Lion in Winter.|
And I would remiss if I didn’t mention future James Bond star, Timothy Dalton, as Prince Philip in his first film appearance. He would appear twice as the British secret agent in such films as The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989).
I will admit that before I watched The Lion in Winter, I had some reservations. For some reason, I always thought Hepburn was too old for O’Toole, but she is actually about the right age for the part. Eleanor was supposed to be older than Henry II, 59 to his 50, Hepburn was 60 when she made this film.
But having watched the film, my criticism is that there doesn’t seem to be a point to the story. The issues it presents are either left unresolved or are forgotten altogether. For all I know Prince Philip is still in his chamber with more people hiding behind the tapestries.
I also didn’t like the musical score, even though it too won the Academy Award. The vocal stylings which permeate the score don’t seem to fit with the time the film is set in and I found that somewhat jarring. Not as bad as say a rock-themed soundtrack might have been, but rather than setting a mood, it had the opposite effect and took me out of the film. You can tell this is a 60’s movie with the occasional jump cut and jolting transitions. And Jane Merrow’s Alais has a very sixties, dare I say it, hippie look to her. Perhaps what is really old was new again.
While I’m pleased that I finally saw the movie, I feel like it was more a required history course rather than an elective. This is one course I’m glad I don’t have to take again.