The Lion in Winter: A Film Review

The Lion in Winter (1968) directed by Anthony Harvey, and based on James Goldman’s 1966 play, is an overtly historical film, set at Chinon Castle in 1183, where Henry II summons his imprisoned wife Queen Eleanor, his three sons Richard, John and Geoffrey, Philip Augustus the King of France and his sister Alais, also Henry’s mistress, to a Christmas gathering to discuss the succession. “What follows is a battle royal among all those present as each tries to out-scheme the other” (Kevin J. Harty, The Reel Middle Ages: Films about Medieval Europe, Mcfarland and Company, Jefferson, 1999, p313).

There is no question that The Lion in Winter is striving for medieval authenticity from its setting in a reconstructed Chinon Castle to the costumes worn by the actors. Watching the film is like being thrown into a medieval domestic drama; the king is forever arguing and making up with his estranged queen with both vicious and tender verbal sparring between the two leads (Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn). The three sons are all characterised broadly; John is the selfish, spoilt brat who has no loyalty not even to the father who loves him, Geoffrey is the quiet, careful schemer and Richard is characterised as a bluff military man who is too virtuous to be aware of the scheming going on around him. It has an air of soap opera about it, albeit it with intelligent dialogue and visually arresting scenes. The Angevin family are just like other ‘dysfunctional’ families except their concerns play out on the larger canvas of medieval Europe. The focus throughout the film is very personal, tightly involved with the family but mainly through the relationship of Henry and Eleanor, powerfully represented on screen by Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn. This perhaps endears it to modern audiences, as well as the believability of the settings it is because we can recognise the troubles which face the royal family. We can recognise the reasons for the arguments between the three sons (despite the fact Henry and Eleanor also had many daughters none of them are deemed important enough to be included in the film), that John is selfish because he is the youngest, that mother and father both have favourites. These are stock stories of modern soap operas – ungrateful children, estranged parents, relationships between an older man and a younger woman which splits up a marriage… these are not unrecognisable, only the context in which they exist is different to our own. This film plays on the assumption that human nature is unchangeable – that although our medieval ancestors inhabited a ‘foreign country’ their reactions to the world in which they lived are fundamentally governed by the same emotions and feelings that we still exhibit today. Also implied is the sense that although these people are royal they are still human – a very modern conception of our own monarchy who have experienced similar family breakdowns in recent years.

Without extensive research it is not possible to reconstruct the motives of the filmmakers, nor the original author of the play upon which the film is based, but there is evidence that the character sketches drawn within the film are close to contemporary descriptions of Henry and his sons. One such contemporary was Gerald of Wales, who described Henry as a manic, restless, and rather extreme man: “His eyes were bright and, and in anger fierce and flecked. He had a fiery complexion, his voice was husky…” (Ralph A Griffiths, ‘Gerald and the Kings of the English,’ in Charles Knightly, A mirror of Medieval Wales: Gerald of Wales and his journey of 1188, ed. D.M. Robinson, Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, Cardiff, 1988, p18).

Another contemporary, Walter Map, complained that “We wear out our clothes, our bodies and our horses… in vain and entirely unfruitful haste we are borne on our insane course. Truly the court is a place of punishment…” (Ralph A Griffiths, ‘Gerald and the Kings of the English,’ in Charles Knightly, A mirror of Medieval Wales: Gerald of Wales and his journey of 1188, ed. D.M. Robinson, Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, Cardiff, 1988, p15). It is believed by some that Henry was a manic depressive (Clifford Brewer, The Death of Kings: A medical history of the Kings and Queens of England, Arson Books, London, 2004, pp39-40) and whilst the film does not offer such an explanation, or show Henry participating in any extreme actions such chewing the rushes as alluded to by some later chroniclers such as Matthew Paris, he is portrayed however with a maniacal energy that reflects the contemporary descriptions. Likewise it is evident that the characters of his wife and sons have been influenced by contemporary descriptions. Unlike academic historical texts there is no room in the film to question these portrayals, except in the minds of the audiences after the film. We take them as they are. Does the fact that the writers seem to have used contemporary views of the protagonists make this picture of the medieval court authentic? It seems so in the mind of Roger Ebert, the US film critic, who was also impressed by the visual representation of the world in which the characters inhabited because he felt it accurately represented how he felt the period of the time should be:

“In this England, 250 years earlier than the time of Thomas More, there are dogs and dirt floors, rough furskins and pots of stew, pigs, mud, dungeons-and human beings. We believe in the complicated intrigue these people get themselves into because we believe in them. They look real, and inhabit a world that looks lived in.”
(Roger Ebert, November 4 1968 - accessed 1 10 2006).

Despite the visual authenticity of the movie and the attention to detail in the characters through the assumed use of contemporary sources, there are identifiable historical inaccuracies in the film, which are mentioned on The Internet Movie Database ( Kevin Harty however does not feel this distracts from the film: “While the film takes liberties with historical fact, it is a feast for the eyes – and ears” (Harty, The Reel Middle Ages, p313). Is it petty therefore for the apparent authenticity of this film in terms of the characters of the king and his family, the visual representation of the medieval world to be destroyed by the fact that this event never took place? That although the film reflects current events of the time (contemporaries speak of the rivalries of Henry and his sons, there is textual evidence for the machinations alluded to within the film) as a ‘fact’ it is worthless? And if the authors were able to take such liberties with some aspects of the film then why would they seek to be authentic in some areas and not others? Like the contemporary medieval sources upon which this film appears to have been based, we must seek to understand the motivations for this film. What are they trying to convey and why? What is it about the themes of this royal and dysfunctional family which are felt to be enduring to both medieval and modern audiences? The Lion in Winter presents us with an unfamiliar setting but with a distinctly ‘modern’ medieval family. The film therefore is both familiar yet strange – exactly how we might regard the middle ages. Thus it is not only the facts or the representation of the past which can be considered in terms of assessing its authenticity but how the film makes us feel, the emotions that it generates, not only in regards to its conception of the medieval ‘past’ but also in regards to the present.


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