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"The Lion in Winter" is a crowning achievement in cinematic story-telling.
Adapted by Oscar-winning James Goldman from his witty, triumphant 1966
Broadway play that originally starred Robert Preston and Tony-winner
Rosemary Harris, the story evolves around aging King Henry II mulling over
successor to the Plantagenet throne among his male progeny, while bringing
his estranged, hateful clan together for the Christmas
Sparks really do fly in this wickedly elaborate chess game as the family player pieces weave thick webs of deceit and hatch insidious plots against each another, forming unholy, protean alliances that put those "Survivor" contestants to shame. The pure joy comes from seeing all of them try to outmaneuver each other with every new and different playing piece put on or taken off the board, hatching alternative schemes as fast as one can say "Long live the King!"
Robust, boisterous Peter O'Toole is a raging marvel as the battered but not yet beaten monarch, agonizing over the untrusting, Machiavellian-like brood he's sired, yet relishing the absolute power he holds and dangles over them. The glorious O'Toole is alternately barbarous and bombastic in one of the best roles of his career, and his loss of the Academy Award over, of all people, John Wayne, remains a travesty of justice.
The king's "brood" includes eldest son and heir-apparent, Richard (known as The Lion-hearted) whose fierce courage and burly warrior stance masquerades a forbidden tenderness detrimental to his standing as a king. Anthony Hopkins, in an auspicious screen debut, embodies these tortuous complexities within Richard perfectly, especially in his scenes as "mummy's favorite." The youngest and pruniest of the three princes is John, a rumpled, drooling, inane man-child impossibly spoiled as the King's favorite, played to pathetic amusement by a terrific Nigel Terry. Neglected middle son, Geoffrey, excellently portrayed with jaded, sliver-eyed cunning by John Castle, is a human blueprint of treachery and deceit. Resentful at being overlooked as even a possible contender, he's willing to sell his parents and brothers down the river for exact change.
Also invited to Christmas court is King Phillip II of France, on a revenge mission himself, who locks horns with Henry over lost lands and becomes a willing participant in these under-handed games. Timothy ("007") Dalton drips with smug, venal charm as the slender, softer, inexperienced king who can only battle Henry with words and wit, not weight. The only unblemished pawn here is Alais, the King's adoring young mistress, who is maliciously thrown to the lions by all as lady-in-waiting bait for the dueling princes. Demure, fragile Jane Merrow is the perfect choice for this innocent songbird with nothing and everything to lose
I have saved the best performance for last. As the King most duplicitous irritant, the inimitable Katharine Hepburn portrays Henry's duly banished Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine with all the unparalleled skill and inspired passion imaginable. Handed on a silver platter the lion's share of the best lines, Hepburn more than delivers the goods here, stealing the ripe proceedings from her talented co-stars. To watch her consummate Eleanor is to see the art of acting in its most passionate form. She is a revelation of perks and prods, of vibrant colors and shadings. She inhabits the passion, the power, the breeding, the deceitfulness, the desperate longing owed this character. Imprisonment (for inciting rebellions against her husband), has not dampened the fighting spirit nor dulled the sharp, calculating mind of this Queen. As in chess, this player is the game's most venturesome and versatile piece, and Hepburn more than lives up to its reputation, a worthy opponent with the best odds to check-mate her King. I have been known to say that the four-time Oscar winner was awarded for all the wrong movies -- excepting this one. She is unforgettable.
Topped with a glorious, inspiring, sometimes furious score (Oscar-winner John Barry), "The Lion in Winter" makes up for its stark, one-note surroundings with its bold, rich characters and ingenuous plotting. It is a hallmark of Gothic temperament and tone. As the old adage goes, "it's not who wins, it's how you play the game." 'Tis so true. So let the games begin!
How lucky can you be to get a script like this and a cast like this all
in the same movie? I've been shocked at some of the negative comments
by other viewers. I was quite young when the movie came out, and didn't
realize for years that Peter O'Toole wasn't the fifty year old he was
playing, and Hepburn was exactly Eleanor's age at the time, so I fail
to see the age mismatched some have mentioned. I'm fifty myself now,
and I still find O'Toole perfectly plausible as a fifty year old in
this movie. (Although, DAMN, he looked GOOD! What a gorgeous man!)
As for the 'anachronistic dialog,' it was extremely intentional and would have been totally wrong without it. To our ears, the possibly more elegant speech of the period would have sounded unnatural; only by using modern language could these people sound to us as they would have sounded to each other - normal.
The acting is brilliant - it would have been very hard to find any other actor who could share a screen with Hepburn without fading away to nothing, or an actress who could have done the same with O'Toole - only two of such power could stand up to one another. And this was absolutely right for these characters - as best we know, Henry and Eleanor were both that kind of person - brilliant, witty, strong-willed powerhouses. Then the supporting cast: Hopkins, Castle, Terry, and Dalton. Granted, they weren't known at the time, so Harvey, the director, may not have realized right off the bat that he had the cast of a lifetime, but he surely must have realized it fast.
Then there's the script. Like most of Oscar Wilde's plays, you could pick it up, open it to any page, and find at least half a dozen quotable lines. No, people aren't normally that witty in real life, but a) these were VERY bright people as historical fact, and b) it's a play/movie! People don't speak in real life as they do in Oscar Wilde either, but it's enjoyable as hell to watch. Get over it!
Some things I love about the movie are that it's made clear that no matter what Henry tells Alys, Eleanor, or himself for that matter, his real love and true equal is always Eleanor, just as he is hers. Also that, despite the at least a dozen apparent power shifts in the course of the movie, at the end, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING has changed. And you can tell that with this bunch, nothing ever will change unless it's due to factors out of their control, like death.
A matter of slight historical correction to other user comments: Alys was legally betrothed to Richard; that's why she'd been raised by Eleanor.
A historical correction to the script is that John, while thoroughly detestable personally, was not at all stupid, sniveling, or whining; his actual character was actually far closer to that of Geoffrey's in the script. Very little is actually known about the historical Geoffrey except that he was actually, if anything, more of a warrior than Richard, and of course, he died quite young, leaving behind two children, the son being the legal heir to Richard, and who died at the age of twelve or so, ostensibly of disease, possibly in reality of John. This wasn't considered that bad a thing, btw, as no one wanted a child as king, and John was the only one of the whole bunch who'd spent most of his life in England itself. The English nobles had seriously resented both Henry's (in his later years especially, as he tried to carve an inheritance for John out of Europe in general, France in particular) and Richard's neglect (Richard had barely set foot in England in his entire life, and was utterly indifferent to it except as a source of revenue). Also, of course, there's no historical evidence for an affair between Henry and Alys EXCEPT that I've read at least one source suggesting that Richard used this as an excuse to not go through with the marriage itself. And there's CERTAINLY no historical suggestion that Richard and Philip had an affair, although it seems highly likely that Richard was gay insofar as he was sexual at all. Bastards of royalty were a dime a dozen in those days, but NONE are attributed to Richard, nor a whiff or rumor of any affairs he ever had. Both Henry and John, on the other hand, would chase anything wearing a dress, and this was considered perfectly normal and even admirable in a "bad boy" sort of way. However, John took it too far, resorting to rape and starvation of wives of political enemies, and this was one of numerous driving forces for the imposition of Magna Carta on him by his rebelling nobles. Ironically, by contemporary standards, at a national level John was a far better king than Richard (Henry at his best was better, but was too often not at his best, being too bent on conquest to bother to rule effectively what he already had). However, John was nonetheless personally a rather nasty man (to put it mildly), once again proving that the best men don't necessarily make the best rulers. His personal character and actions, more than his policies, drove his own nobles into nearly successful rebellion, resulting in Magna Carta, one of the great steps in English history.
Sorry for boring you silly with the history commentary - it's a period I've always found particularly interesting. You can wake up now; I'm finished.
Anyway, great movie in every sense - script, acting, score, cinematography, editing; it just doesn't get better than this.
It's been eight years since I first saw this movie, and it is still my
personal live-action gold standard (Lilo & Stitch being my animated film
gold-standard). It combines drama, tragedy, razor-sharp comedy, great
performances, and the best dialogue that has ever been spoken on film,
I found this movie quite by accident--I was a sixteen-year-old with a Katharine Hepburn fixation. She mesmerized me; I wanted to BE her--smart, beautiful, sexy, and unwilling and unable to take anything off of anybody (except for Spencer Tracy, but that's another story). Honestly, I had no idea that there really had been such a person as Eleanor until I saw this movie. After watching my heroine portray her, I was determined to find out, though...so I have Katharine Hepburn to thank for my discovery of a new personal hero, and for my passion for medieval history.
It is true that this movie is not 100% factually accurate, not only because movie making dictates tinkering with history to create an interesting film, but also because, unfortunately, not too much is known about Eleanor herself. In the middle ages, women, even powerful, intriguing women like Eleanor, were not considered "important" enough to merit full biographical treatment. Most of Eleanor's history is recorded in the context of her sons and husbands. A good deal of this history was written by her detractors--people who disliked or disapproved of her for one reason or another. The simple explanation is that they felt that as a woman, she overstepped the bounds of what was considered "acceptable behavior" for a woman of the period.
That being said, this movie is 100% spiritually accurate. It perfectly captures the intrigue, the complexity of emotions and relationships, and tone of the age and the situation at hand. Though the sharp and witty dialogue is often considered a historical anachronism, this is not strictly true. Contrary to popular belief, people WERE educated in the middle ages, even women, if they were fortunate enough to be brought up in noble households, as Eleanor was. She was a brilliant woman, raised in a household where poetry and intelligent conversation were staples (her grandfather, after all, was one of the first troubadours). Henry was an intellectual powerhouse as well--he was a voracious reader who was often caught reading in church instead of paying attention to the sermons! It is unthinkable that these two minds would have produced stupid children, and the notion that the entire family should have only spoken in grunts and simple phrases is equally ludicrous.
Though not historically accurate, as other reviewers have noted, the strength of this movie lies in it's perfect portrayal of some of the most fascinating and complex personalities in recorded history. Henry, Eleanor, Richard, et al., make today's political and royal figures seem like low-rent bumbling hucksters.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This, by all means, should have been the film to do a clean sweep at
the Oscars come 1969, but as fate would have it, only three wins, Best
Actress, Writing from Another Medium, and Music. The storytelling is so
simple yet so powerful and the acting is of such a high order that it
seems timeless despite being a Historical Drama set in the 12th
Set on the course of one night, King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) has a family reunion to see who of his three sons will be his successor to the throne, although he has his eyes set on John (Nigel Terry), but his imprisoned wife, Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine (played to perfection by Katharine Hepburn) has other plans which involve her own favorite, Richard (Anthony Hopkins in his film debut). Matters get complicated when neglected son Geoffrey (John Castle) pretends to be on John's side to serve his own interests and when Eleanor encounters Henry's mistress Alais (Jane Merrow) and will not cede the Acquitaine to Henry. Into the mix is a revelation from newly appointed King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton) in which he states that Richard had raped him (when in fact they had had an affair). Floating above the overlapping intrigues is Henry, not quite able to decide just what will the course of action to take, and when he learns that his sons have been conspiring to overthrow him (thanks to Eleanor), he almost gets painted into a corner and makes an impossible decision.
This is a fascinating story, written so eloquently and performed so powerfully on-screen that one forgets this was originally a stage play with Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris in the leads. No sumptuous decorations; this, while being a family of noble extraction, they live devoid of the commodities that one would imagine coming from them. Of course, chemistry just overflows whenever Hepburn and O'Toole are together on-screen; it makes one think of the best matches in cinema history and is a shame they never worked together again as she was fond of him. If anything, they alone are the movie and never for a moment does one get bored even though the only "action" sequence is a scene where O'Toole drags Merrow to force her to marry Hopkins while Hepburn quietly monitors them. A beautiful film, timeless in its theme of family and inheritances, with shrewd performances, the best movie for 1968.
What were those Academy fools thinking?! They ignore a powerhouse
performance by Peter O'Toole and trounce Anthony Harvey's inspiring
direction! But the final indignity was in giving the best picture award to
an over-praised, undeserving, insignificant musical called OLIVER! If they
had a least half a brain in their heads they could've given to FUNNY GIRL
but they only shoot themselves in the foot when the deserving go
unrecognized. It only goes to show the Academy's just jealous. The script
and Kate's performance at least were given the royal treatment but it
leaves bitter resentment when Cliff Roberston, one of Hollywood's most
less-than-adequate actors cops the best actor away from O'Toole...
Hollywood's most underrated, not to mention unrecognized actors of the
highest caliber. Hepburn's Eleanor of Aquitaine had witty lines, quiet but
still present anger and fire underneath the surface but O'Toole as Henry
gave the more powerful performance... an aesthetic that echoed Taylor and
Burton for WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? only Taylor was the gutsy
performer and Burton doled out the cut-lows and the intellect. To coin a
phrase from the British... "he (O'Toole) was bloody robbed!"
The story is set in Britain, 1183. Henry II is on the throne and has ten years earlier imprisoned his wife Eleanor of Acquitaine after co-conspirating a civil war against him. She and their three sons (Richard, the eldest, a brave warrior on the battlefield, whom Eleanor wants to succeed Henry as king; Geoffrey, the quietly vicious, unappreciated middle son of whom neither of them love with a plot for every occurrence and John, the piggish, dirty, thieving brat is their youngest whom Henry for some unknown reason wants on the throne) are all requested to appear at their palace of Chinon for the Christmas holidays. Also invited is young King Philip II of France whose elder sister Alais is the treasured and much-loved mistress to Henry. Philip wishes to have Alais mearried off to one of Henry's sons (preferably Richard) in order to form an alliance between England and France made between Henry and Philip's father, the late King Louis. But meanwhile, Philip is also plotting with all three boys and Eleanor to tear Henry's kingdom apart. Eleanor is merely in on it to get back at Henry for loving Alais (whom she had raised as a surrogate daughter) and the late Rosmund, an old rival of Eleanor's whom Henry replaced her with.
This film has it all: infidelity, betrayal, family dysfunction and a script that crackles with venom, wit and plot-twisting motivation. See it if only for O'Toole and Hepburn's first-rate performances.
I love this film. I love this film. I am not sure that I can say that
phrase enough when describing this movie. Lion in Winter is quite simply
one of the strangest and most beautiful movies that I have ever seen. It
some wierd amalgam of a 'home for the hollidays' type family drama, and
Machiavellian political intrigue.
The essential plot is that it is 1183 and Henry II must declare his successor to the Plantagenet throne. He invites his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (played by Katherine Hepburn), who is in exile, and his sons to along with king of France, to Christmas dinner. Over the course of the evening truths are told and arguments are had, the film rolls over all of the conventions of the many genres that it plays with and turns them into something new and beautiful.
The film could have been written by Machiavelli himself, and often smacks of the Mandragola. The film demonstrates family disfunction within a very interesting, medieval paradigm. While the film is about issues such as family, loyalty and love, ultimately is most gratifying as a vehicle for O'Toole and Hepburn to chew the scenery and dig into a few truly juicy roles.
It is fantastic film that any lover of dialogue driven drama-comedy should rent and watch over and over again.
I am a high school history teacher, and I use this film to give
students insight to the way Medieval kings, queens, and princes plotted
and schemed with and against one another, how marriages were arranged
with political motives, and how the relationships between these
self-important royals shaped the history of the time. When I first
introduced the films plot to my student, I was met with apathy and
predisposed boredom, but they quickly were caught up in the intrigue
and plot twists. At each major turn (an impromptu wedding, a surprise
revelation about one of the character's sexuality, etc.), the students
were often literally gasping.
As for the film itself, I can not think of a movie with more solid acting from the headliners (O'Toole and Hepburn) to the other principal players (Hopkins, Dalton, Terry, and especially Castle), and even the other characters are well cast (Merrow as Alais is not especially solid, but she is at least adequate in her portrayal as "the only pawn" in this game of kings, queens, and knights).
It is, of course, not to be seen as wholly accurate historically, as it would be near impossible to achieve such for events that took place 800 years ago, but the major themes are true to form, and the film is wonderfully engrossing. Highly recommended!
Katharine Hepburn won her third Oscar for "The Lion in Winter", playing
brassy queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her role is sort of an interesting
counterbalance to Peter O'Toole, as King Henry II. That is, she's
elderly and he's young. Maybe it was an allusion to the growing
generation gap in the world at the time.
But anyway, this is what epic tales of royalty are supposed to be. It shows Henry's conflicts in wondering who will succeed him. Never dragging, the movie truly gives one the feeling of being with these people and understanding their lives. One of the most interesting scenes - in my opinion at least - is when Eleanor says something about sex. I usually wouldn't expect someone of Katharine Hepburn's generation mention sex in a movie. But she does a great job here (well duh). Also starring are a very young Anthony Hopkins and an even younger Timothy Dalton. All in all, "The Lion in Winter" is a perfect movie in every way, and affirmed 1968 as one of the best movie years ever, with "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Funny Girl", "The Odd Couple", "The Planet of the Apes", "Romeo and Juliet", "Candy", "The Night of the Living Dead" and "Bullitt".
The great film critic, Pauline Kael, chastised Hepburn in this film
version of James Goldman's historical cat fight for exploiting the
audience's emotional connection to her; for playing on her frailty.
Further proof, that artistry is in the eye of the beholder. Ironically,
years later, Hepburn, according to biographer Scott Berg, would
criticize Meryl Streep for being too mannered. Of course, neither are
the worse for the wear. Hepburn actually emerges triumphant in her
portrayal of Eleonor of Acquitane and not least of which because we
know the woman behind the artist; and know her to be a royal survivor
in her own right.
Other criticism that has dogged this work is that James Goldman's dark satire is muddied by the layer of emotion and even sentiment that the movie develops. But as with the film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the enhanced emotional core of the story is a strong plus. To this end John Barry's forceful score lends great credibility as does Anthony Harvey's non stop strategic direction. Casting this powerful, writing this intelligent in the hands of a smart director makes this Lion unsurpassable to a stage production and certainly the unfortunate recent remake.
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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