THE LION IN WINTER
from Magill's Survey of Cinema, 15 Jun 1995.
Based on James Goldman's Broadway play, the film stars Peter O'Toole as King Henry II, who, while holding Christmas court in France in 1183, attempts to choose a successor from among his plotting sons. Henry favors John (Nigel Terry), his youngest, and hopes that John will marry Henry's mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow), who is the sister of France's King Phillip (Timothy Dalton), in order to maintain England's French holdings.
THE LION IN WINTER falls into the same tradition as BECKETT (1964) and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966), two earlier films which revived the historical drama. These films all had the general characteristic of taking actual historical incidents and characters and placing the circumstances into a modern perspective. All three present anachronistic speeches and insights in carefully reconstructed historical situations. THE LION IN WINTER is a companion piece and almost a sequel to BECKETT, centering on King Henry II of England, who reigned from 1142 to 1189. In both films Peter O'Toole plays Henry, and although the two films are directed and written by different people, the same historical flavor and attention to detail is evident in both. The anachronistic aspect of these films is the dialogue, which seems too modern; yet it is the very contemporariness of the dialogue, coupled with the meticulous reconstruction of the historical setting, which makes both films excellent.
THE LION IN WINTER is based upon James Goldman's critically acclaimed 1966 Broadway play of the same name. The theme of the drama is family betrayal and intrigue, as illustrated by seven royal characters. All are intelligent and cunning, but also greedy and ambitious. Each one cheats and connives for personal gain and political power. The story takes place in the South of France at King Henry's Chinon Castle during the tweny-four-hour Christmas court held in 1183. The main character, Henry (Peter O'Toole), is a formidable monarch who has been on the throne for some years, feels his own mortality, and wants to select his successor. His eldest son and the natural successor, young Henry, died six months before the start of the action. Henry favors his youngest son John (Nigel Terry), a pimply-faced brat who merely uses his father's affection. Henry has a young mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow), who is the sister of the King of France, but he would like her to marry John in order to maintain England's holding in that country. She has no desire to do so, but Henry tries to persuade her that they will be able to remain lovers even if she does marry John.
For those conversant with the problems of medieval English and French history, the thrust of the film may be somewhat obscured. Although the film does give a great deal of historical background interspersed among the various speeches, it does not make clear the fact that in the twelfth century, the right of the English kings was still a fragile thing. Civil wars, murder, and pretenders to the throne could easily interfere with the type of hereditary succession which is now taken for granted in England. Additionally, England's holdings were not confined to the area now known as the British Isles; England also had extensive holdings on the Continent, principally in France, which caused great consternation in the dukes of the various French provinces, as well as in the kings themselves.
With this background in mind, the story makes more sense. The main part of the action begins when Henry's Queen, Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), comes to the Court. Because she took part in civil wars against Henry and plots against his kingship, he has kept her under "house arrest" imprisoned in a tower in Salisbury, England, for the last ten years. Power, the thing which she values most, has been taken away from her. Henry and Eleanor are both strong-willed, and the film portrays them as having a love-hate relationship. They love, detest, fight, and sometimes protect each other.
When Eleanor discovers that Henry wants to name John to be his heir, she schemes to attain that honor for her chosen Richard (Anthony Hopkins), and eventually promises to yield her own territory, the Aquitaine, to Henry, if Richard is the heir. In their squabblings about Richard and John, their third surviving son, Geoffrey (John Castle), feels that he has been neglected, and he begins to undermine both of their plans. The final major character of the film, King Phillip II of France (Timothy Dalton), Alais' brother, comes to the Christmas Court after the others have arrived and begins his own plots. His aim is to rid France of any English holdings, and to this aim, he seduces (intellectually) John and Geoffrey in turn, after it is revealed that he had seduced (physically) Richard the summer before. Alais is merely a pawn of the others, being a prize because of her position, not herself.
Following Henry's abortive plan to annul his marriage to Eleanor and a failed attempt to kill Richard, the film ends with the main characters returning to the status quo. No heir has been selected, and Eleanor goes back to Salisbury. In the final scene, Eleanor and Henry part as lovers, although feuding ones. "You're still a marvel of a man," she says to Henry. "And you're still my Lady," he replies.
Although the film is one of the best representations of medieval life on film, some of the characters and details of the lives of the Plantagenets are altered for dramatic effect. The character of Alais does not have any historical basis, and it seems unlikely that a Christmas Court hosting King Phillip would have taken place at such a juncture. There were indeed fights and plots among the family members, but the question of succession as it is dissected in the film probably took place several years later, closer to Henry's death. The actual Henry and Eleanor, however, were involved in power struggles as portrayed in the film. Eleanor had previously been married to King Louis of France, and when she obtained a divorce from him because she failed to produce a male heir, she married Henry Plantagenet, who was considerably younger than she. This enabled Henry to consolidate her lands in France with his own. Eleanor did select Richard as her choice for king, but he later became disillusioned with her and fought against her. Geoffrey actually died before Henry and was therefore not in contention for the throne in 1189. Richard became King Richard I, the Lion-Hearted, and John was "bad King John Lackland," who succeeded his brother in 1204.
The film does an excellent job of showing the level of existence in the twelfth century. Although Henry is a King who can afford anything by twelfth century standards, his palace is cold, sparse, and dirty. The grounds, far from being the idyllic palaces seen in earlier films about medieval times, are dirty with peasants and animals sharing living space. The gracious banquets and jousting tournaments usually depicted are totally anachronistic, and this film does much to correct that erroneous picture.
Whatever the merits of the historicity of the film, however, the performances could hardly be improved upon. O'Toole and Hepburn are near-perfect in their roles. Although there is an age difference of twenty-five years between them, they seem perfectly matched. They snarl, cajole, bicker, and love in a way that excellently illustrates the strength of the actual characters whom they portray. O'Toole, who is playing the same character that he had played at a younger age in BECKETT, gives one of the many fine performances of his career. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role, but lost to Cliff Robertson for his quiet, sensitive portrayal of a mentally retarded janitor in CHARLY. It is unfortunate that despite several Oscar nominations for some brilliant performances, O'Toole has never won the award. Hepburn equals O'Toole's brilliance, and she won her third Best Actress Oscar for the film, tying with Barbra Streisand for FUNNY GIRL. Hepburn had also won the award the year before for her very different portrayal in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER? She is presently the only actress to have won three Oscars for Best Actress.
The others in the cast, including Hopkins, Castle, and Dalton in particular, are very good. Because the film is based on a play, it gives the actors many good opportunities to deliver speeches, which they do extremely well. In addition to Hepburn's award, James Goldman, for his very first screenplay, and John Barry, for the music, also won Oscars. Barry's music beautifully combines a new score with strains of authentic medieval music for the best possible effect. Goldman's screenplay, taking into account its historical anachronisms, is insightful and well drawn. The story provides a historical backdrop for a thematic study of familial relationships, and, in a certain sense, is a medieval reworking of Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and other similar plays. At the end of the film, it is the love-hate relationships among the family members that come through as much as the historical aspects of the film.
Release Date: 1968
Martin Poll for Avco Ambassy
Director: Anthony Harvey
Cinematographer: Douglas Slocombe
File Editor: John Bloom
Art direction - Peter Murton; set decoration, Peter James
Costume design - Margaret Furse
Music - John Barry
Run Time: 134 minutes
King Henry II - Peter O'Toole
Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine - Katharine Hepburn
Princess Alais - Jane Merrow
Prince Geoffrey - John Castle
King Phillip of France - Timothy Dalton
Prince Richard - Anthony Hopkins
William Marshall - Nigel Stock
Prince John - Nigel Terry
Strolling Player - Kenneth Griffith
Bishop of Durham - O.Z. Whitehead
Eleanor's Guard - Kenneth Ives
New York Times: October 31, 1968, p. 54
Newsweek: November 18, 1968, p. 118
Time: November 15, 1968, p. 107
Variety: October 23, 1968, p. 6
Named persons in Production Credits:
Studios named in Production Credits:
Academy Awards - Nomination - Best Picture
Academy Awards - Nomination - Best Actor - Peter O'Toole
Academy Awards - Winner - Best Actress - Katharine Hepburn
Academy Awards - Winner - Best Screenplay (Based on Material from Another Medium) - James Goldman
Academy Awards - Winner - Music (Best Original Score for a Non-Musical Picture) - John Barry
British Academy Awards - Winner - Best Actress - Katharine Hepburn
British Academy Awards - Winner - Anthony Asquith Memorial Award (Original Film Music) - John Barry
Golden Globe Award - Winner - Best Motion Picture-Drama
Golden Globe Award - Winner - Best Actor-Drama - Peter O'Toole
New York Film Critics - Winner - Best Motion Picture - Academy Awards - Nomination - Best Director - Anthony Harvey