The Lion in Winter (1968)

*. The Lion in Winter is one of those movies with an unavoidable personal connection for me. For years I think I saw this movie on TV every Christmas. I guess the networks figured it was Christmas programming because it takes place at a family Christmas court in 1183. But it’s not a movie much informed with the Christmas spirit. “Shall we hang the holly, or each other?” Henry roars.
*. That line was one that Pauline Kael tagged for a self-defeating, bathetic “imitation wit and imitation poetry” characteristic of the script. Well, guilty as charged. The script is hilarious. But undeniably entertaining too. It also has just enough self-awareness to undercut some of its more extravagant flights. Henry (Peter O’Toole) even tries to coach Philip (Timothy Dalton) on how to deliver his lines. If he’s not roaring he’s not trying hard enough! Everyone knows it’s all bluster and a joke. Everyone is performing.
*. That’s an odd fit for melodrama, where the sincerity of strained feeling is more the style. Here the game is to try and figure out when the characters are being sincere. Since they’re all playing angles, and quite open about it, this can be quite a fun challenge. As Geoffrey (John Castle) explains to Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn) “I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We’re a knowledgeable family.” Presumably at some point they’re not just acting, but even at the end I don’t think they’ve all figured out when they were telling the truth.
*. The fact that I watched this movie so many times tells you how much I enjoyed it as a kid. Seeing it again so many years later I’ll admit the silliness comes out more, but I still had a good time.
*. Some things never go out of style. One such thing being high-stakes domestic drama. It’s why we love soap-opera historical sagas involving the Julio-Claudians and the Tudors so much. It’s fun seeing all these costume epics where everyone is behaving like the Soprano crime family. You can still see the same situations — the bed-hopping, the bitchiness, the political maneuvering — in cable dramas like Game of Thrones and The Tudors. This is something the contemporary review in Time twigged to, while missing the point. “Henry and Eleanor are reduced to a TV-sized version of the sovereigns next door, their epic struggle shrunk to sitcom squabbles.” But who doesn’t like sitcom squabbles, especially with a cast this good? I’d rather watch this than Becket any day. Or A Man for All Seasons, if I’m being honest.
*. The label camp sometimes gets applied too, but that may be going a bit far. Still, the scene in Philip’s chambers where everyone is hiding and eavesdropping on the latest arrivals (“That’s what tapestries are for”) plays out like a bedroom farce. And the homosexual angle, with Richard (Anthony Hopkins) crushing on Philip, something for which there is no historical evidence, is only good for laughs. Surely Richard should step out from behind the bedroom curtains and scream “You bitch!” But we weren’t there yet.
*. It was Hopkins’ first major role, and Hepburn had given him some advice: “Don’t act. Leave that to me; I act all over the place. You don’t need to act. You’ve got a good face, you’ve got a good voice, you’ve got a big body. . . . Just show up and speak the lines.” Hopkins later said he considered this excellent advice, and it is in this case. Hepburn and O’Toole are the ones chewing the scenery. Everyone else can play down, except for Nigel Terry as the sulky, pimply Prince John, who does a great comic turn.
*. For all the praise they received, I do find the scenes with O’Toole and Hepburn to go on too long now. Especially since they keep replaying the same stages of trying to get over one another. Of course, that’s the point as well, since they can’t. Which is a sweet sentiment, made all the sweeter by the significant age differential between them. In reality I believe Eleanor was nine years older than Henry, which was a lot in those days. But at the time of making the film Hepburn was 61 (Eleanor’s actual age) and O’Toole only 36.
*. What makes these dysfunctional family dramas so compelling is how much of ourselves we recognize in them, how modern and contemporary they seem no matter what the period. This is a family where everyone wants love, everyone needs it, but nobody wants to give it. That would be to give up too much power and control, which is a stronger currency.
*. I wonder if one of the reasons I liked it so much when I was a kid may hint at something else: the way this is a movie that isn’t very grown-up. Henry in particular is just a big kid, and in his whimsically expressed desire not to die what we really hear is his fear of growing old. Another universal feeling that.

2 thoughts on “The Lion in Winter (1968)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Great review! I must have been watching Where Eagles Dare or The Cassandra Crossing while this was on, but I get where you’re coming from. And yes, saying that historical characters are reduced is a cheap shot for a critic; presumably the likes of Kael knew and understood the characters of royals better than any film-makers ever could!

    1. Alex Good Post author

      This was specifically Christmas viewing for me as a kid. That seems to be when the networks thought it should run. But The Guns of Navarone could play all year!


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