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  • Post last modified:March 4, 2023

Lion in Winter: A Plantagenet Power Struggle

Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Photo: Embassy Pictures

You may barely remember Henry II from history class, but in the 1960s the Medieval king was hot stuff. Peter O’Toole played him in two Oscar-winning films that were based on lauded plays. The first, Becket (1964), depicted a friendship that turns sour, between the king and the man he appoints Archbishop of Canterbury. The second one, The Lion in Winter, puts Henry at odds with his wife Eleanor and three sons. Welcome to spend a Christmas with the quarrelsome Plantagenets.

Choosing a successor
In 1183, King Henry II (O’Toole) prepares to celebrate Christmas at the castle in Chinon together with his family… but the gathering is unusual and Henry has a specific purpose in mind. He’s about to turn 50 and the time has come to choose a successor. He wants John (Nigel Terry) on the throne, but no one else can understand why an immature 16-year-old deserves to be king. Queen Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), who’s been imprisoned the last decade after supporting a rebellion against the King, wants Richard (Anthony Hopkins) instead. Henry has agreed to release her over Christmas and now the estranged couple will try to find a solution. In the meantime, no one seems to be asking another one of their sons, Geoffrey (John Castle), how he feels about the future of the throne…

Used as pawns
Richard and John? Ah yes, these are Richard the Lionheart and the future King John, famous not only from history books but also the Robin Hood legend. In this version, Richard is portrayed as cold and cunning, John as sullen and stupid. They are used as pawns in the power struggle between their parents. There is obviously some affection between Henry and Eleanor, in spite of past betrayals and the fact that Henry is currently sleeping with Alais (Jane Merrow), the young sister of Philip II (Timothy Dalton), the King of France. She’s supposed to marry whomever ends up on the throne of England; after all, treaties are meant to be followed.

Matters are further complicated by the sexual liaison between Richard and Philip, who joins the family in Chinon. Were they lovers in real life? Historians have speculated, but found no real evidence. It’s not a huge part of the story here. What matters is not historical accuracy, or complete logic in the relationship between the characters – rather, this is a diabolically entertaining family game, where insults dipped in acid are traded, where everybody tries hard to strike where it hurts the most. The plot is often absurd, most of it made up… but not stranger or more outrageous than what happened in real life.

Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton are also worth a look in their film debuts.

Especially O’Toole and Hepburn are a joy to behold; it’s been said that the latter knew full well how much the former liked to party and sternly demanded he remain completely committed throughout the shoot. I’m sure he was too afraid of her to offer much resistance. Hopkins and Dalton are also worth a look in their film debuts.

Anthony Harvey started out as a successful editor before taking a seat in the director’s chair. O’Toole reportedly was the one who believed that Harvey might be the right guy to turn James Goldman’s Broadway hit into a movie. This became Harvey’s second film and he holds our attention mainly by giving Hepburn as much room as possible; she’s intoxicating and this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Harvey. The role won her an Oscar, and John Barry also picked one up for his score, memorable choral music that evokes Christmas without becoming too transparent about it.

The interiors were shot in a studio, but outdoor scenes were filmed at Montmajour Abbey in the south of France, very capably standing in for Chinon.

The Lion in Winter 1968-U.K.-U.S. 134 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Martin Poll. Directed by Anthony Harvey. Screenplay, Play: James Goldman. Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe. Music: John Barry. Costume Design: Margaret Furse. Cast: Peter O’Toole (Henry II), Katharine Hepburn (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Anthony Hopkins (Richard), John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton.

Trivia: Remade as a TV movie, The Lion in Winter (2003).

Quote: “There’s no sense asking if the air is good if there’s nothing else to breathe.” (O’Toole)

Oscars: Best Actress (Hepburn), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score. BAFTA: Best Actress (Hepburn), Film Music. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Actor (O’Toole). 

Last word: “I think if you can get a really fine performance, to hell with the cut, to hell with the over complex tracking shot. I’d even go for lousy lighting as long as the motion of that performance works. There’s a good example in Lion in Winter; in a scene where Katharine Hepburn is lying on the bed. She radiated an extraordinary sexuality and although the scene was only supposed to go up to a certain point, she and Peter O’Toole became so carried away that we followed them around and went beyond the lights and still went on shooting. And in fact a lot of it was usable. That rarely happens.” (Harvey, Watershed)

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