The Lion in Winter (1968) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Of all the films in the top 250 at IMDb, this one probably belongs the least. It is a talky film, completely actionless, often completely boring for mainstream audiences, about the intrigues in the court of the English King, Henry II. It isn't really much of a film at all, but more of a photographic record of a stage play. 

Having said that, let me hasten to add that it is one of my favorite movies, so if you share my tastes, if you like Masterpiece Theater, you'll love it.

It takes about three years of English history, from the death of Henry's oldest son in 1183 to the death of his number three son in 1186, and condenses all the intrigues of that period into one night in which the participants scheme and plot with and against one another to establish a continuity in the English kingdom after Henry's death.

The main characters are Henry's other two sons (Richard the Lionhearted and John, the two so well-known to us from the Robin Hood tales, and all the derivatives thereof), Henry's wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the seventeen year old French king, Philip, who was in the English court without any advisors or attendants, and speaking perfect unaccented English. (While probably not 100% accurate, this is reasonably reflective of the actual relationship between the two families at the time.)


I vote for Richard the Lion-Hearted as one of the all-time best "king names", right up there with Ivan the Terrifying, Vlad the Impaler, and William the Conqueror. Now those were tough kings. It is any surprise that they were more respected by history than Louis the Mad, Ethelred the Unready, and Edward the Confessor? 

Do you think anybody called Ethelred "the unready" to his face?  Talk about no respect. That would have been Rodney Dangerfield's nickname if he were king.

"Yes, your unpreparedness"

"Immediately, oh ill-prepared one"

On the other hand, some kings had nicknames so bad that history has forgotten them completely. I need only mention Louis the Craven, Charles the Sniveling, Ugreth the Unjust, Juan the Unusually Corrupt, and Philip the Pimply-Faced Poof.

Although it is in Reader's Digest condensed form, the plot accurately portrays the intrigues of those three years. You see, ol' Henry was a heck of a king, but he wasn't too strong on a succession plan. Instead of just picking a worthy son to be king and assigning all the others important roles in governance, he constantly vacillated between various plans, which caused his sons to be struggling with each other eternally.


For reasons completely unclear in the script, Henry favored giving the kingdom to his youngest son, John. This makes no sense in the context of the film, because John is portrayed as a petulant child and an imbecile. It is obvious that the French king, although only a year older, is highly competent and would manage to completely overpower and outsmart John within months after Henry's death. Given the characters as developed in the script, it isn't possible to believe that Henry could so love England and also want John to rule it. 

Let's add a  brief description of  Eleanor of Aquitaine's role in this play. Although she was Henry's wife, she had previously been the wife of the French king, and she also had her own independent kingdom, which was one of the richest on the continent. She may have loved Henry and he her at some time, but after bearing him some children, she got back into the whole manipulation of power thing, and at one time she actually led a rebellion against Henry! This caused her to spend the last years of her life imprisoned by her own husband.   

In the setting of the movie, Henry has set her free temporarily, for a Christmas reunion of the English and French royal families. It's unlikely that the real Henry would be so foolish, for surely she would try to conspire with one or more of her sons or with the French king to usurp Henry. If nothing else, she would make his life miserable. Henry had mixed feelings about her because of their long life together, but her sons uniformly hated the scheming old crone. The script justifies her presence there because Henry needed her to sign over Aquitaine to him so he could assign it to one of his sons. I forget which, but probably John.

Well, various different combinations of people do conspire against Henry, as they did in real life. (The French king and Richard joined their armies together against Henry at one point.)

In the movie's condensed version of history, they all exult in the conspiracies, like chessmasters before the table, everyone but John thinking dozens of moves in advance. The aged monarchs delight in causing each other great pain. Eleanor digs her claws into Henry whenever possible, and Henry flaunts his young mistress, the sister of the French king, whom Eleanor raised with her own children!

The film received numerous acting awards, and deservedly so. The filmmakers assembled a magnificent cast. In the role for which her entire life prepared her, 61 year old Kate Hepburn played 61 year old Eleanor of Aquitaine to perfection, and won a Best Actress Oscar for it. In fact, Hepburn is actually a direct descendant of Eleanor from two different lines, both Eleanor's French children and her English children, so she was literally born to play this role at age 61. The rest of the cast included Peter O'Toole as Henry, Nigel Terry as John, Timothy Dalton as the young French King (he was actually 22 at the time), and Anthony Hopkins as Richard.

I mentioned earlier that the script had some problems. In addition to the unthinkable possibility that the Henry of this script would trust his beloved kingdom to his moronic John, there is also the static artificiality of a stage play. There is one scene where everyone in the entire frigging cast is hiding behind curtains, listening to everyone else, and revealing themselves dramatically one at a time as the conversation drew them in. 

Move along, too silly.

The casting actually had some problems as well. Think for a minute - Peter O'Toole played Anthony Hopkins' father. Huh? They are about the same age, and I think Hopkins (although slightly younger) actually looked older in the film! Hepburn was 61 at the time, O'Toole was 35. It looked like O'Toole was trolling the old folks' home for companionship. The real Henry was 11 years younger than the real Eleanor, but O'Toole both looked young enough, and was young enough to play Hepburn's son. 

I hope I haven't steered you away from the film if you are a history buff, or if you like witty dialogue and classical acting. The music won an Oscar as well. It has all of that for you, if you count yourself among the Masterpiece Theater crowd. Although the plotting was contrived and artificial, the dialogue is among the best and wittiest ever written. James Goldman won a screenplay Oscar for adapting his own play. O'Toole and Hepburn delivered his dialogue masterfully. 

Some examples of the brilliant dialogue:

Henry to Philip: "Boy, you call yourself a king because you place your ass on purple cushions?"

Eleanor: "Henry's bed is Henry's province. He may populate it with sheep, if he wishes. Which, upon occasion, he has done."

Eleanor: "He has a knife? Of course he has a knife! We all have knives. It's 1183 and we are all barbarians"

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1. Although the film is dominated by talky interior two-shots, the photography is splendid, and the transfer is excellent.

  • Full-length director commentary

In addition to his wordy historical dramas (he also wrote Nicholas and Alexandra), Goldman has written two of my favorite movies, "They Might be Giants", about an insane judge who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes; and "Robin and Marian", a film about the aged post-crusade Robin Hood, which starred Sean Connery and another famous Hepburn.

Peter O'Toole was nominated for the Best Actor award seven times in only twenty years, but he never won. I know it doesn't seem possible, but he did not win for Lawrence of Arabia, being pitted that year against Gregory Peck's career-defining role in To Kill a Mockingbird. O'Toole's other most brilliant role was basically playing himself in My Favorite Year, but he again was steamrolled by a once in a lifetime performance, this time from Ben Kingsley as Ghandi.

If you want a good trivia fact for bar bets, O'Toole was nominated twice for playing the same character. In Becket, he played the young Henry II. In The Lion in Winter, he played the same king as an old man (although O'Toole himself only aged four or five years between movies). 

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 8.1, just barely sneaking it into their Top 250. 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. It is a great, great genre picture, if your genre is historical theater, but it could bore the bejeezus out of you if you don't like Masterpiece Theater. Not a mainstream entertainment. Nothing at all happens in the entire movie, except good talk.

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