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Christmas 1183--an aging and conniving King Henry II plans a reunion where he hopes to name his successor. He summons the following people for the holiday: his scheming but imprisoned wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine; his mistress, Princess Alais, whom he wishes to marry; his three sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and John), all of whom desire the throne; and the young but crafty King Philip of France (who is also Alais' brother). With the fate of Henry's empire at stake, everybody engages in their own brand of deception and treachery to stake their claim. Written by
It is very rare to find an actor who has played the same historical figure twice. Charleton Heston was Andrew Jackson in THE PRESIDENT'S LADY and THE BUCCANNEER (1958). Edward Arnold was Diamond Jim Brady in DIAMOND JIM and LILIAN RUSSELL. Reginald Owen was Louis XV in VOLTAIRE and MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE. Raymond Massey was John Brown in SANTA FE TRAIL and SEVEN ANGRY MEN. But only Peter O'Toole played the same historical figure in two major productions that were made only four years apart, and that showed the character seriously aging.
O'Toole had played King Henry II of England in BECKET (1964) as a young, vibrant monarch who makes the serious mistake of appointing his best friend to the one post that will make them enemies. The period that BECKET encompasses was roughly 1165 to 1171 (when Henry allowed himself to be whipped for the murder of Becket the year before - apparently at his orders). In THE LION IN WINTER (1968) he was King Henry some twelve years later. Henry is now the most powerful monarch in Western Europe, but he has problems of dynastic and political natures.
His power structure in 1183 is dependent on his hold of the marriage dower of his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. In BECKET, Pamela Brown played Eleanor as a sharp tongued and jealous woman who arranged the murder of her rival Gwendolen (Sian Phillips), on the night Henry was going to have sex with her. Henry (who hates the sight of blood) has a nervous collapse upon seeing the results of Eleanor's activities. In THE LION IN WINTER Eleanor was played by Katherine Hepburn. Now older, she is still a match in terms of political abilities to her husband. He has let her out of her castle prison to visit him and their three surviving sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and John) as well as Princess Alais of France and her brother King Phiip Augustus of France.
Henry's family get-together is not for holiday reasons (although it is occurring at Christmas). He has taken a dower from King Philip's father King Louis for Pincess Alais (Jane Merrow) to marry his oldest son Richard (Anthony Hopkins). But Alais has become the mistress of the monarch, who is considering divorcing Eleanor and starting a "proper" family with his second wife Alais. Richard and his two brothers (John Castle and Nigel Terry) are not happy with this prospect - nor with dynastic ambitions of each other. Of the three sons, Henry favors John (Terry) over Richard, although Richard is the better fighter. The reason is that Richard is the favorite of his mother, and has been implicated in some of her attempts to stir up civil war against Henry. Geoffrey (Castle) has brains but he is untrustworthy and finds that he is constantly dismissed by both parents. And King Philip (Timothy Dalton) is furious that due to the highhanded actions of Henry his father was reduced in power in Europe, and he is forced to report to a man who is technically his vassal due to the French lands that Henry controls.
THE LION IN WINTER had been a Broadway success in the middle 1960s, starring Robert Preston as Henry. The film is a successful transition, with the elderly monarch and his elderly consort tearing at each other in a kind of medieval WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. O'Toole is wonderful as the still intelligent, vigorous, and bullying monarch he was in BECKET, except now he is facing his own mortality. Hepburn (who won her third Oscar for this film - one year after winning her second for GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER and tying this time with Barbara Streisand for FUNNY GIRL) is able to display a woman capable of any political damage be it encouraging her sons to revolt or threatening future harm to Alais and any child she and Henry may have to torturing Henry with the suggestion that she (Eleanor) slept with Henry's father before they met.
Hopkins' hapless Richard is the most sympathetic of the three sons, with his humiliation when Philip maliciously reveals that Richard is a homosexual (the first time this trait was revealed in any film about Richard the Lion Hearted). Terry's John is properly "pimple faced" and immature on the surface, but showing when he betrays his father that two-faced ability that would lead to his disasters as King. Castle is properly sinister throughout - one realizes that both parents will not suggest him as heir because he'd kill them as soon as he could safely plan it out afterward. Dalton's Philip is galling to O'Toole, as he keeps showing that unlike his father he knows how to harm the British monarchy - by disgracing it's leading hero (Richard), and by simply waiting for time to take it's toll on his enemy Henry. And Merrow is the most sympathetic figure in the film, genuinely loving Henry but finding even he regards her as a dynastic pawn in the end. The movie was that rarity, a sequel as thoughtful and intelligent as the first film had been, and filling in the results of that first film's background and story very well indeed.
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