Katharine Hepburn bested Peter O'Toole as the top dog on the set. Known to be something of a tyrant on most of his shoots, O'Toole meekly obliged when she told him "Peter, stop towering over me. Come and sit down and try to look respectable." O'Toole readily admitted in her presence that she reduced him "to a shadow of my former gay-dog self." "She is terrifying. It is sheer masochism working with her. She has been sent by some dark fate to nag and torment me." Her reply: "Don't be so silly. We are going to get on very well. You are Irish and you make me laugh. In any case, I am on to you and you to me."
While close-ups of Richard (Anthony Hopkins) in his jousting costume were being filmed, the horse was spooked and bolted. Hopkins fell off and broke his arm. Filming the scene with his sword raised above his jousting opponent was very difficult due to this.
Eleanor greets King Philip by telling him that she could have been his mother. This is in fact, true. Eleanor's first husband, Louis VII, later fathered Alais by his second wife and Philip by his third. Eleanor's marriage to Louis was annulled by the Pope when she was unable to bear him sons. She gave Henry five boys, two of whom died before the action of the movie takes place.
Although Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole had met years earlier and she was a great admirer of his work, she had no intention of putting up with the rather bad behaviour he often exhibited on his productions. "You're known to be late," she told him on the first day of work. "I intend for you to be on time. I hear you stay out at night. You'd better be rested in the morning if you're going to work with me!"
Although Peter O'Toole plays the father of Anthony Hopkins, John Castle and Nigel Terry, he is only five, seven and thirteen years older than them respectively. Moreover, O'Toole is twenty-five years Katharine Hepburn's junior but plays her husband. It should be noted, however, that there was quite a substantial age gap between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine - she was approximately eleven years his senior. At the time frame set for this film, Christmas 1183, Eleanor of Aquitaine, born 1122, would have been 61 years old, as played by Katherine Hepburn, who was born May 12, 1907, also 61 years old at the time of production (1968). Henry II, born March 5, 1133 was 50 years old during Christmas 1183, as played by Peter O'Toole, born August 2, 1932, only 35-36 at the time of production, approximately 15 years younger than the character he was playing.
To the company's amazement, Katharine Hepburn swam twice a day in the frigid winter sea in Ireland, early in the morning and during her lunch break. When Peter O'Toole asked her why she did it, she explained, "It's the shock -so horrible that it makes you feel great afterwards."
Anthony Harvey and Art Director Peter Murton decided to make the setting as true as possible to the times. Therefore, although the principal characters were royalty, they lived in drafty, dirty castles rather than the sanitized, glamorized view of medieval life most movies have taken.
Katharine Hepburn threw herself into the role of the "tough as nails" Eleanor with great relish and interest. "Both she and Henry were probably big-time operators who played for whole countries," she said. "I like big-time operators."
On the first day of rehearsal, Katharine Hepburn slammed her thumb in a heavy iron door at the theatre, crushing the nail and causing a deep cut down the length of her hand. But she refused to go to the hospital and insisted on continuing with rehearsal. She also refused stitches, saying the wound would take too long to heal before shooting began.
For the greatest authenticity, the actors wore their costumes as long as possible before shooting a scene so that they looked soiled and frayed. Although costume designer Margaret Furse preferred dark clothes, Katharine Hepburn talked her into brighter colours for Eleanor, who she reasoned had been to the Middle East and would have owned many vividly colored articles.
4 of the 5 male leads would go on to play kings/rulers in other movies: Peter O'Toole (Henry II): Priam in "Troy"; Nigel Terry (John): King Arthur in "Excalibur"; Anthony Hopkins (Richard): Odin in "Thor 1 & 2"; Timothy Dalton (Philip I): Prince/King Barin in "Flash Gordon".