Cyberlizard goes to the movies
Added 9 December 2000
While history taught badly can be dull, portrayed on the screen with decent actors and a good script it can be both educational and extremely entertaining. The Lion in Winter is centred on Henry II, perhaps the most able of the somewhat crazy Plantagenet dynasty of the English Middle Ages, and the problem of which of his sons is to succeed him following the death of the first-born, also a Henry. Although this sounds dull, it is both gripping and amusing.
Henry II (Peter O'Toole) decides to hold his Christmas court at Chignon, France (during this period the English crown held much of France), and commands his three sons Richard (aka the Lionheart, played by Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (later to become England's notorious tyrant - Nigel Terry) to attend. He also decides to let his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine out of her virtual prison so that she can be by his side and put on a good show of family unity before the barons, even though he openly keeps a young mistress, Alice (Jane Merrow). To complicate matters, Alice is actually cousin to the young King of France (Philip, played by Timothy Dalton) and was promised as a bride to Richard when she was only seven, in return for which the English crown received an important piece of French territory just 20 miles from Paris. King Philip is also invited to attend, thus setting the scene for a Plantagenet family outing of bickering, manouvering, scheming, betrayal and occasional violence.
The Lion in Winter is one of those rare gems, a historical piece which grips, informs and also makes you laugh. Peter O'Toole is suitably larger than life as Henry II, possibly our best Plantagenet monarch in terms of lawgiving and stability but also a man given to occasional uncontrollable rages (rolling around on the floor and chewing straw, apparently) and with a prodigious sexual appetite that left behind a string of offspring born out of wedlock as well as his three surviving legitimate sons. Unkempt and bearded, dressed hardly better than the peasants, O'Toole's Henry can be guffawing loudly and stuffing his face at a banquet while at the same time plotting how to get around his French neighbour. Completely irreligious, coarse and witty, by turns he is also tender and romantic towards Alice and then coldly planning to marry her off to one of his sons (whichever seems somewhat unimportant) to execute state policy and keep his empire together. "Snapping at me and plotting?" he demands of his wife rhetorically about his sons. "That's how I brought them up!" At the same time, such is the turbulent passion of this monarch that he angrily disinherits them and even contemplates their removal from the scene altogether by one means or another.
When it comes to scheming, however, Henry meets his match in the equally manipulative Eleanor of Aquitaine, a woman somewhat older than him with whom he fell in love as a young man and whose husband Louis (Philip's father) he cuckolded to have her. Eleanor also has her ways of achieving her aims by manipulating and wheedling people, and has also matched Henry's sexual incontinence with her own adulterous behaviour throughout most of her adult life. Indeed, she uses it to taunt Henry in a couple of scenes, suggesting that she may have slept with his father. Those who think that the Middle Ages were a hotbed of Christian piety may be somewhat shocked at Eleanor, whose real-life behaviour was indeed reprehensible. (Indeed, despite both her promiscuity and her plotting the old queen lived beyond her eightieth year - extreme old age for the time). Hepburn was a good choice to play Eleanor as a beautiful and accomplished actress in her mature years, and in the scenes where she loosens her hair in the bedchamber we get a glimpse of Eleanor as the beauty that captivated Henry before he began looking elsewhere for sexual pleasure.
The characters of the three sons - Richard Lionheart, Geoffrey and John - are somewhat dramatised for the effect, although there is no reason to suppose that they were very different in real life. A young Anthony Hopkins plays Richard as one of those strange warriors who is part poet, part bloodthirsty maniac, and probably homosexual as well (this has always been a question mark over the historical Richard - he may have been so inclined, or possibly just preferred the company of men). Brought up and taught by Eleanor, he now turns on her as a manipulator but still needs her to achieve his aim of clinching the throne. A military genius, he is not quite as adept at intrigue as Geoffrey and at times seems to be staring in space as if elsewhere - Palestine, maybe. Geoffrey is little-known in history and appropriately is played, albeit ably, by the lesser known John Castle, who portrays him as the frustrated middle brother, never really wanted by either Henry or Eleanor, and whose heart is cold save in the pursuit of power. We see him at the beginning of the film, watching his army fall on another group of soldiers, detached both physically and emotionally on a clifftop, totally unsurprised by his father's summons. Of all the three brothers, Geoffrey might in fact have made the ablest ruler of England, had he not died suddenly at a young age. John as played by Nigel Terry is essentially a gormless young oaf, lacking grace or charm, loved only by his father who later however admits that he has been making excuses for the things he finds his son doing. In one telling scene John is drooling over a present he has made for his father, a working model of an executioner cutting a man's head off. Despite his inherent brutality John is easily led on by the wily Geoffrey, who keeps offering his services alternately to Richard and John. John himself is prone to self-pity despite his prime position as his father's favourite. In one hilarious scene he sits down on a pile of straw and announces that even if he was on fire no-one would even urinate on him to extinguish the flames, at which point Richard suggests "Anyone got a flint?" The other major player in the power struggle is Philip. Timothy Dalton has been a consistently good actor in many historical parts, and here shines as the young but somewhat Machiavellian French king who secretly smarts at the treatment Henry dealt out to his saintly father Louis and who is determined to be more wily and unscrupulous. The relationship between him and the English king seems to waver between friendly rivalry and potentially dangerous double-dealing, with each of the brothers going to Philip in a bid to enlist his support. Philip's charm and manners are as well-trimmed as his neatly cut beard, his mood wavering between frustration and elation as he seeks to gain at England's expense. Alice (Jane Merrow), a picture of loveliness, innocence and often hurt, appears for most of the film to be the sacrificial lamb that must be given up for the sake of England, either to be wed to one of Henry's sons or even to Henry himself. Only at the last minute does she turn and reject a path that would possibly lead to her imprisonment or worse later in life and the probable death of any child at the hands of the brothers. Strangely, despite having usurped Eleanor's bed place, she and the older queen seem to share a bond of understanding even as they turn on each other.
It is indeed possible to enjoy this film as an insight into the process that gave us much English law and two renowned kings, one "good", one certainly bad, but I think it is also possible to draw a deeper moral. The Lion in Winter portrays a house deeply divided against itself, led by a man who was an able soldier and lawgiver but who like King David made a hash of his personal and family life. The essential message of the story seems to be that chickens come home to roost, especially in the form of ambitious sons who have learnt from their fathers. With Henry and Eleanor's sexual, dynastic and political entanglements the consequences are born not only in the three sons' endless scheming and fighting to get hold of the crown but also in Philip's unscrupulousness and the endless antagonism of Henry and Eleanor towards each other's hopes and wishes, sometimes spiting each other for the sake of it. Although the film does not end on a sombre note, one can only hope that they don't play this video at Relate meetings.