Monday, August 20, 2007

Film classics: The Lion in Winter

[I write occasional pieces about old films on DVD for the New Sunday Express, but I haven't really been posting them here, mainly because the 600-word format isn't too satisfying. But I'm putting some of the earlier ones up.]

 In her essay on Anthony Harvey's The Lion in Winter, Pauline Kael said the film suffered from a unique flaw: it had too much (inappropriate) integrity. The James Goldman play about the succession intrigues between King Henry II, his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children over an eventful Christmas weekend in 1183 was a cheerfully bawdy production, but Kael felt the film version, with Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn in the lead roles, had turned it into an earnest, seriously meant melodrama: “they’re playing a camp historical play as if it were the real thing.”

I don't agree with this criticism, though I'll admit a bias: I first saw The Lion in Winter at age 14, when I was a sucker for grand-looking epics with florid posturing (and even more of a sucker for anything that starred the incomparable Hepburn). But even at the time, I sensed that this wasn't your standard historical film: it was homelier, more accessible than, say, Anne of the Thousand Days, and the first film in its genre that didn't make me feel like I had to watch it standing at attention. It seemed to come from a recognisable world, the squabbling between Henry and Eleanor not that much different from the ones I'd seen between various sets of uncles and aunts, even if the language was an odd mix of Medievalese and locker-room. (The only other medieval epic I'd seen that created a similar mood was The Private Life of Henry VIII, with Charles Laughton hamming it up magnificently in the title role – but that was a creaky black-and-white film, not really comparable to the Technicolor opuses of the 1950s and 1960s.)

As the title suggests, The Lion in Winter is a dramatisation of Henry's mid-life (or, as it would turn out, late-life) crisis, his attempt to pick the right heir from amongst three sons (including the prince who would later be known as Richard the Lionheart) and his banter, alternately acerbic and tender, with his ex-wife. Also thrown into this right regal soap opera is Eleanor's stepson, the petulant Prince Philip of France. While turkeys wait to be spread out for the banquet table, these royals feed on each other – conniving, recriminating, digging up past grievances.

There isn't a weak link in the performances. Hepburn, who won the third of her record four Oscars for this role, perfectly mixes poise and vulnerability (her real-life struggle with Parkinson's Disease adds to the poignancy of her performance as a woman who has been cut off from her family for too long) and Peter O'Toole is an astonishingly energetic Henry (the scene where he baits Richard and then makes as if to bring his sword down on his son's neck is a heart-stopper, even though you know all this is High Farce). Anthony Hopkins, more than 20 years before achieving fava-bean-and-chianti stardom in Silence of the Lambs, makes a fine Richard, and the callow, much-too-young Timothy Dalton is perfectly cast as the callow, much-too-young Philip.

Watching the film again as an adult, I'm not entirely sure what James Goldman had in mind when he wrote exchanges such as these:

Henry: The day those stout hearts band together is the day that pigs get wings. 

Eleanor: There'll be pork in the treetops come morning.


Henry: You're like a democratic drawbridge: going down for everybody. 

Eleanor: At my age there's not much traffic anymore.

But it's easy to guess the overall effect he was reaching for. He was trying to de-mythologise an important period; to rescue it from the sterility of school textbooks and bring it to joyous, rambunctious life, linking the political and the personal in a way that modern audiences could relate to. It works. The Lion in Winter is a cheeky thumb-wag in the face of any delusions we might have about the dignity of royal houses (admittedly, recent events have made it hard to sustain those delusions anyhow) and the grandeur and purposefulness we associate with key historical events. It reminds us that much of history has been built on individual hubris, quirks and whimsies, and that the fates of nations might be decided by a wrong word spoken here, a telling glance there. As one character says, frat-boy style, to another, "If you're a prince, there's hope for every ape in Africa."


Trivia: Having also played Henry II in Becket a few years earlier, O'Toole became the first actor to be Oscar-nominated for playing the same role in two unrelated movies. (A year later, with Goodbye, Mr Chips, he was nominated for a role that another actor - Robert Donat - had already won an Oscar for.)

DVD Extras: Audio commentary by director Anthony Harvey and an interview with Anthony Hopkins

[Some earlier posts on old films: Yojimbo, 8 1/2, Fearless Vampire Killers, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Badlands, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fiddler on the Roof, Peeping Tom, Eraserhead, Closely Watched Trains]


  1. sigh. another one of those films that i lost in the great vhs tragedy. i loved this film when i saw it. not sure how i'd react now.

    you know another film that's inextricably linked in my mind with this lion in winter, becket thing? a man for all seasons.

  2. Brilliant stuff, especially in 600 words.


  3. Terrific post on one of my all-time favorite films. I loved this movie from a surprisingly young age considering how cerebral it is and how not a history buff I am; not a lot happens that you can detect without listening to the dialogue. And yet the dialogues leave a lasting impression. Geoffrey's "I know. You know I know. I know you know I know and Henry knows we know it. We're a knowledgeable family" is among my favorites, along with:

    John: He has a knife!
    Eleanor: Of course he has a knife. We all have knives. It's 1183 and we're barbarians.

    It's an early model, I think, of the now-ubiquitous family dysfunction movie, writ incredibly large on the stage of international politics.

  4. If you want an entirely different perspective on E of A, try and read "Back Home at the O.r.g.y." by Ted Mark.

  5. You could also try "A proud taste for scarlet and Miniver" by E.L.Konigsburg. Absolutely charming and it has beautiful sketches in the 12 century style of zero perspective.

  6. The Lion in Winter has always been one of my favorite movies. Stellar performances from the entire cast, Brilliant writing, and ultimately the humanity of all the characters makes me miss my own family.

    Trouble is that when I read a piece about Hepburn and it contains factual errors I bristle. her life was an open book. She lead it courageously and honestly. So when someone makes an elementary research mistake like mentioning Parkinson's Disease which she did not have I find the rest of what they have to say a nit less than interesting. The following is a quote from her autobiography.

    "Now to squash a rumor. No, I don't have Parkinson's. I inherited my shaking head from my grandfather Hepburn. I discovered that whisky helps stop the shaking. Problem is, if you're not careful, it stops the rest of you too. My head just shakes, but I promise you, it ain't gonna fall off!"

    That took me about 30 seconds to find on the internet. Why do you suppose that someone writing a piece about her wouldn't have bothered to take that much time to learn the facts?

    Thanks for the memories though.

  7. the new me: thanks for the biggest laugh I've had in a few years. The things you can find in 30 seconds on the Internet!