The Lion in Winter (1968) Blu-ray Review: Cutthroat Politics, Medieval Style

The Lion in Winter is largely about terrible people who might love each other, when they’re not plotting against each other. Henry II is deciding which of his sons will be his heir: the warmonger, the sociopath, or the troglodyte. That’s Richard, Geoffrey, or John. For Christmas vacation, he lets his wife, Eleanor, out of her castle prison for a court visit from the King of France, the 17-year-old Philip.

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These are historical figures, and this is a historical play… kind of. There’s no hint that any of the events or interactions reflect anything that happened in real life. What this is about is the cutthroat politics of succession, and how the political intersects with the personal at every step.

Henry (Peter O’Toole) loves Alais (Jane Merrow) who is promised to his son, Richard (Anthony Hopkins, in his big screen debut). Henry despises his wife, Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), whom he has imprisoned. He wants his idiot son John (Nigel Terry), his youngest and apparently most worthless son, to be king instead of the natural successor, Richard. Eleanor backs Richard, who spends all his time as a soldier. Nobody backs the calculating Geoffrey (John Castle.) They all meet in Henry’s castle in Chinon and have an audience with French King Phillip (Timothy Dalton, also in his movie debut.)

Alais is Philip’s half-sister and has been pledged to marry Richard. But Henry decided that John should be his successor and marry Alais. This would keep her nearby so he could continue his affair with her. The politics is complicated, but the details are less the point than the machinations. At no point does anyone in this family seem to do anything without calculating how it could possibly hurt the others, which is often the goal.

The Lion in Winter is based on a play by James Goldman, who also wrote the screenplay. He’s the brother of William Goldman, famous for writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride. The tone of the film is undetermined. It is sometimes comic, sometimes farce, sometimes tragic. At times, it doesn’t feel like a play at all… and then there are scenes of dialogue between two people which last 10 minutes long and betray the origins.

Visually, the royal family is depicted as essentially living in opulent squalor. At the castle, people moving through the courtyard are constantly surrounded by dogs or chickens. There’s one scene, when King Philip arrives, where we see a dog viciously attacking a chicken. Everything is either barren stone or mud. This is not a romanticized view of medieval royalty.

And, of course, the characters are engaged in constant manipulation and political gainsmanship. John, who seems to be some kind of idiot, openly proclaims he’ll win, because his father loves him best. He turns to betrayal at the first sign of trouble. Richard was once devoted to his mother but was alienated in some way. Geoffrey is openly disdained by both parents, without ever hearing a satisfactory reason why. He plots against everyone to try and get himself the throne. It’s like a prototype of Game of Thrones with murkier motives, and no naked ladies or dragons.

The heart of the story lies between Henry and Eleanor, who maybe despise each other or maybe love each other. They move back and forth, sometimes several times in a scene. Peter O’ Toole and especially Katharine Hepburn give amazing performances. Hepburn is especially impressive, where she moves from sincere adoration to seething contempt sometimes in the same line. Their dynamic is engaging.

It’s a beautifully appointed film, shot in France and Wales. It makes full use of its environments, with drafty halls and stone floors. There’s one long scene that takes full advantage of the rooms with curtained alcoves where people can hide to eavesdrop which movies have informed me are standard in medieval castles.

I don’t know it, but I have the feeling this played out as more of a comedy on stage and plays as a near tragedy on screen. Which feels weird, because tragedy plays out with characters one admires, and everyone in this cast is reprehensible. That works for comedy but is a tougher call in a tragic drama where you want to feel something. The Lion in Winter has intelligent dialogue and terrific performances. What it lacks is a real reason for me to care. I admire many aspects of it, but do not love it.

The Lion in Winter has been released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Extras include an audio commentary by director Anthony Harvey, an interview with sound recordist Simon Kaye, and a trailer.

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Kent Conrad


  1. Gordon S. Miller on April 4, 2024 at 11:18 am

    I wonder if the creator of Succession was inspired by this.

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