Henry II: HA! What shall we hang…the holly or each other?”
For some reason it doesn’t appear on many Christmas movie lists, but the film version of James Goldman’s wonderfully acerbic and deftly scripted The Lion in Winter is most definitely a seasonal chestnut in every way. A yuletide gathering of a severely dysfunctional family, it draws heavily on the bold steps Edward Albee’s took a few years earlier with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? King Henry II releases his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, from lock-up for Christmas Court with their three sons – future kings Richard and John, and middle brother, Geoffrey, for a season of maneuvering, plotting and overall merriment.
The iconic leads are Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn and both throw themselves into the roles with everything they’ve got…which is considerable. Word is O’Toole, who was pissed to the gills half the time, wanted to get more venom from Kate. So, he took a leak on the set in front of her. Whether true or not, both play their adversarial roles as if their lives depended on it, giving the audience a genuinely rollicking time.
The three siblings have their own rivalry as they try and gain parental support; after all, one of them will be king eventually. Yes, that’s a very young Anthony Hopkins as the future (and closeted) Richard the Lionhearted whose strategy to win the support of the French is to bed King Phillip II (Timothy Dalton). Nigel Terry plays John – yes, the King John of Robin Hood fame – as a whiny idiot who is not expected to amount to much. John Castle plays the conniving brother, Geoffrey, who probably would have been king had he not died at the age of 27.
Deep within the vitriol and verbal calisthenics lies genuine affection, as when Henry says:
“In my time I’ve known contessas, milkmaids, courtesans and novices, whores, gypsies, jades, and little boys, but nowhere in God’s western world have I found anyone to love but you.”
For her part, Eleanor:
“I even made poor Louis take me on Crusade. How’s that for blasphemy. I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn…but the troops were dazzled.”
Not your standard Christmas fare, but the sentiment is the same today, that of affection, nostalgia, expectations and regrets – each played out in public once a year. In this case, the castles are dark and cold, the clothing abundant and heavy, the stakes high and the wit even higher.
Prince John: A knife! He’s got a knife!
Eleanor: Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little – that’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.
If you think that the past does not speak to the present, that we have “evolved” to a refined level beyond reproach and fallibility, simply edit the quote above and change the date to 2016 and substitute “knife” with “gun”. And a very Happy Christmas from the 12th Century.
The Lion in Winter is most definitely a film for the season.