Friday 30 August 2019

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Off-List: The Lion in Winter
The third off-List movie of 1968 is “The Lion in Winter”. This movie was recommended to me by Bea of “Flickers in Time” and a lot of thanks for that.

“The Lion in Winter” is a historic drama taking place in the twelfth century where King Henry II has invited his entire family to his castle for Christmas. The large majority of the takes place over a few days in this castle where all members of the family is plotting and scheming against each other. Henry (Peter O’Toole) has released his wife Queen Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn) from her house arrest for the duration of the holidays and also attending are three of their sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry) as well as the king of France, King Philip (Timothy Dalton) and his half sister Alais (Jane Merrow), currently the concubine of King Henry, but promised to the heir of England whoever that may be. And that is the target for all the plotting and scheming. Which of the three sons should be the next king.

Interestingly, all of them despise each other with the possible exception of Alais. 

Over the course of the film we see them clash. Henry is trying, for unclear reasons, to promote the younger and half retarded son, John, while Eleanor is promoting Richard, who dislikes her. All three of the sons want to be king and so form alliances against each other or try to make them with Philip.

“The Lion in Winter” was adapted from a stage play and it shows. It is very dialogue heavy and relies on long scenes in a very few sets. My copy did not have subtitles which turned out to be a problem as you need to catch every sentence for this movie to make sense (Turning the volume very loud solved that problem) and for a while I was confused what the conflicts were actually about. In this sense it has a lot in common with “Who is Afraid of Virginia Wolf” (with a dash of “Games of Thrones”) in that the movie is a jousting match on words, especially between Henry and Eleanor with politics, personal emotions, rage, bitterness and affection thrown around with abandon. In fact, I could see this being an attempt of redoing “Who is Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” in a medieval setting, but, I think with less success. “The Lion in Winter” feels more staged and the arguments more contrived. I often had a difficult time understanding why the pendulum is swinging in a certain direction and why it swings back again. People would come out from behind a curtain and nobody would be surprised they were there. Henry and Eleanor are supposed to appear smug with their intrigues, but it often appears like the schemes never really materialize or are less impressive when carried out.

What largely saves the movie is the stellar cast. This is a lot more than Katherine Hepburn. Peter O’Toole is good and Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton (the later James Bond) both had their breakthrough with this movie. Of the lead characters only Hepburn were not British and I think that lent authenticity to the story.

The story itself is an odd mix of actual history and free fantasy. All the characters were actual people and the contention was indeed real, but a Christmas party like the one described here apparently never took place, though it could have, given the conflicts brewing. As the story, as it unfolds, does not resolve anything, everybody ends up just as pitted against each other as in the beginning, so these events could have been shoehorned in without changing the actual, later events.

Richard would later become King Richard the Lionheart and John, we all know king John from Robin Hood.

I think it was a good movie, but not as satisfying as I would have hoped. Filmed theater can be problematic. I would recommend it though for the rare collection of stellar actors.


  1. It's been years since I saw this. Will have to see if it holds up. I'm off to Finland for a couple of weeks on Sept. 3. Hope to come back full of enthusiasm to get back to once a day viewing!

    1. Have a pleasant trip, Bea. Scandinavia has been warm in August, let us hope it stays decent for the next few weeks.