The Lion in Winter: It's 1183 and We're Barbarians
6 min read

The Lion in Winter: It's 1183 and We're Barbarians

The Lion in Winter (1968) is many things. It's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf staged in a Medieval Times. It's a faithful adaptation of the Mountain Goats' "No Children" in which the couple, to their regret, have some children. It's a Katharine Hepburn vehicle, or rather a demonstration of Hepburn's ability to make anything she's in into a vehicle. It's a scientific whodunnit about two movie stars who know they fucked, and know their children are biologically theirs, and therefore can't figure out why all three of them are character actors. Lastly, of course, it is a Christmas movie.

It's 1183, and Henry II is king of England for a little while longer. The conqueror of the British Isles and half of France, he's 50 and feeling his age; he needs an heir, but most of his sons have waged rebellions against him, or died, or both. The only living, non-traitorous heir is his son John, but John is the youngest and most lumpen of Henry's children – you know him as Prince John from Disney's Robin Hood. Here, he is played by Nigel Terry, not as a thumb-sucking lion, but as a kind of RADA goblin creature. The future King Richard is also here (Anthony Hopkins, gay, wide, and miserable), as is Geoffrey, Henry's middle son (John Castle, unloved and phlegmatic in gray wool). All three sons want to be king, though none of them have thought about why. All three of them are also steadfastly mediocre. Richard is a good soldier with no brain; Geoffrey is a good steward with no heart; John has neither, but he can whittle.

Henry has invited these three decent D&D characters to a Christmas court at his castle in Chinon, along with his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he's imprisoned for years because the only way they can still express their history-breaking, turbulent love is by fighting wars against each other. The nominal occasion is a visit by the King of France, Philip II, and the need to hammer out an agreement for the marriage of Philip's sister Alais to one of Henry's sons. Complicating matters is the fact that Henry and Alais have been fucking for years. The result is two hours of vicious repartee, threats of marriages begun and ended, rampant bisexuality, bedroom farce, high camp, high tragedy, Monologues, and the depths of the human condition. It feels like three hours, but you want it to be three.

If I've focused thus far on Henry and Eleanor's sons, it's because the sons are the chess pieces in their parents' game, whose ultimate purpose is not to settle the succession (Eleanor favors Richard, Henry wants John) but to give them a few moments of intimacy and an honest word or two in between conversational depth charges. Henry, played by Peter O'Toole, is an affable, dangerous dirtbag dressed in the medieval equivalent of cutoffs and a beer-stained T-shirt. He visibly wants you to underestimate him, but his real game is seeing whether you're dumb enough to notice this and then think you have his measure. By contrast, Hepburn's Eleanor is exactly as transparent as she seems; she's just so brilliant, such a skillful manipulator, that she can let you see exactly what she's doing and you'll still fall for it. In flowing woolen robes and a succession of wimples, Eleanor can beam like something anthropomorphized, or she can unleash some shocking act of self-harm just to make a point. Either way, however, she is the film's heart, the most human and sympathetic person in it. Alone of all the characters, everything she does she does for love, whether it's putting an almost hypnotic whammy on Richard to get him to offer her back forfeited lands, or screaming at Henry that she once fucked his dad. I promise that, in context, these things are done for love.

There's a real generational difference in acting style between Hepburn and O'Toole (she's 60 playing 60; he's 35 playing 50). She's arch, mid-Atlantic and cool, everything articulated, in keeping with the 1930s film star she was when O'Toole was born. She's also playing entirely to type. The stage-trained O'Toole had only begun acting in movies in the 1960s, though Lawrence of Arabia had already made him a star; his work in The Lion in Winter is warmer, bigger, aimed at the back rows where Hepburn makes you come to her. Despite this, they're a good match, and they don't give that "we're in different movies" vibe. The key is that both of them are high camp, in the old grand manner. The cameras of their eyes focus at different depths, but that's not of great concern to us in the audience.

If The Lion in Winter has one apparent flaw, it's that most of its dialogue consists of takedowns and shade. Characters start describing each other the moment we meet them, so there's no chance to learn what's true (and this is the kind of film where some things are objectively true). We only see them through each other's lenses. In the end, this doesn't matter either – once you're in the flow of the thing, you realize that every insult in the film is mostly meant to shed light on the speaker. When Eleanor's eyes linger on John, who is Pig Pen, so that she can tell him he's "so clean and neat," the real point is that she doesn't think he's worth a subtler cruelty. When Henry tells Alais to ignore Eleanor's presence and kiss him, the real point is that he can imagine her out of existence whenever he likes. The gaze is everything.

This is never more apparent than in the scene I think is the film's finest, the aforementioned bedroom farce. In it, the young King Philip of France receives successive visits from Henry's sons and Henry himself, shutting each one behind a curtain as the next one comes in. Philip, portrayed by future Bond Timothy Dalton in his first film role, is a throw-forward where Henry is a throwback. His aggressive elegance and languid wit evoke many Louises to come. When Geoffrey and John come in full of news and plotting, he keeps them talking until Richard arrives; when Richard arrives, we learn that he and Richard are former lovers, who reconcile and are at the point of going to bed together when Henry knocks at the door. Shutting Richard behind the curtains of the bed, Philip then turns to Henry, using first his words and then the revelation of all the hidden sons to cut him to pieces. He makes it clear that he intends to beat Henry by taking advantage of the family's mutual hatred until he's outlived them all, and then by seizing back their land, and it's obvious that he's going to make good on the threat. After we've spent an hour and a half watching the English royal family play subtle games of seeing and ignoring one another, of catching and releasing one another with words, Philip reveals everything, breaks the lenses, pulls the gauze and velvet away. We've hardly seen him before, we'll never see him again, and he doesn't give a shit.

In the end, the only power left to Henry is brute force. He knows Philip's right, and from now on all that's left is the countdown. He's a dead man walking (and historically, of course, Philip did everything he promised to do). In a final ranting speech, delivered as the sons stand in horror and Philip makes the power move of leaning elegantly against a column, he proclaims:

My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could, and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne's. He married out of love a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen. She bore him many children. But no sons.

Henry is a master storyteller and legend-builder, but when you have nothing to work with, no truths to back you up, stories don't have any force; they're just chaff. The sons buy into Henry's hype too much to know this, but Eleanor doesn't. She was there before the hype, when she left the old king of France for him and they conquered the known world together. His sons disowned (ineffectually), Philip gone from the narrative (but he'll be back), Henry falls back on Eleanor, who recognizes that their magnificent, ruined marriage is the real meaning of both of their lives, which is why they can no longer win at anything else. The Lion in Winter is a shaggy dog story – the status quo at the end is identical to that at the beginning – but Henry and Eleanor are different, because they've spent yet another fucked-up Christmas together, done each other fresh damage, and reminded one another that they are still alive. This is their consolation.