Katharine Hepburn portrayed her own ancestor. She was descended from Eleanor of Aquitaine in numerous lines, from both Eleanor's marriage to Louis VII, King of France, and Eleanor's marriage to Henry II, King of England.
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."
Although Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole had met several years earlier, and she was a great admirer of his work, she had no intention of putting up with the rather bad behavior 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!"
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.
Although Peter O'Toole played the father of Sir Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, and Nigel Terry, he was only five, seven and thirteen years older than them respectively. Moreover, O'Toole was twenty-five years younger than Katharine Hepburn, but played 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 older than him. At the time frame set for this film, Christmas 1183, Eleanor of Aquitaine, born 1122, would have been sixty-one years old, as played by Katherine Hepburn, who was born May 12, 1907, also sixty-one years old at the time of production (1968). Henry II, born March 5, 1133 was fifty years old during Christmas 1183, as played by Peter O'Toole, born August 2, 1932, only thirty-six at the time of production, fourteen years younger than the character he was playing.
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."
While close-ups of Richard (Sir 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.
On the first day of rehearsal, Katharine Hepburn slammed her thumb in a heavy iron door at the theater, 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 and actresses 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 colors for Eleanor, who she reasoned had been to the Middle East, and would have owned many vividly colored articles.
Sir Anthony Hopkins told Jonathan Rhys Meyers that Peter O'Toole was constantly late on-set, and that Hopkins would help out by mimicking his voice off camera for certain shots. Peter O'Toole arrived one day to find Hopkins doing his voice, and after that forbade him from doing it again.
Sir Anthony Hopkins' debut in a feature film. When young Hopkins expressed anxiety about his performance compared to such established names as O'Toole and Hepburn, Hepburn allegedly advised him, "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. Watch Spencer Tracy, watch the real American actors that never act--they just do it. Just show up and speak the lines." Hopkins later regarded this as the best acting advice he had ever been given.
Narrating the Turner Classic Movies's filler on co-star Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins recalled how Hepburn took him under her wing, advising him: "Don't act. Just speak the lines." He found it to be great advice.
Four of the five male leads would go on to play Kings and rulers in other movies: Peter O'Toole (Henry II): Priam in Troy (2004); Nigel Terry (John): King Arthur in Excalibur (1981); Sir Anthony Hopkins (Richard): Odin in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and Timothy Dalton (Philip I): Prince/King Barin in Flash Gordon (1980).
In the scene where Eleanor begs Richard's love, Richard remarks that he has seen pictures of Eleanor at the height of her beauty. Ironically, other than her tomb effigy, no images of Queen Eleanor during her lifetime have survived. The two images traditionally assumed to be her are unconfirmed. (Naturally, the fictional Richard might have been referring to portraits later lost to history.) While there are several written descriptions praising her beauty, none of them actually record such basic features as her eyes or hair color. Based on descriptions of her sons, all of whom were said to resemble her, we may assume she was very tall, slim, and had a very strong chin, grey or blue eyes, and wavy reddish-gold hair--not unlike her descendant, Katherine Hepburn.