Lucky 13 Film Club: The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for Best Actress as Eleanor of Aquitaine. James Goldman won an Oscar for adapting his own play. John Barry‘s score won for Best Score. It’s 1182 and King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is the scene-chewing roaring lion passionately defending his kingdom while three sons vie for the crown and a sour wife is his greatest adversary.  Ultimately, it’s a love story between a husband and wife whose bitter disappointments in each other flail out to those around them. Their manipulations tarnish the relationships between their three sons. Betrayal is the prominent theme. My heart goes out to son number one, Richard, played to perfection by Anthony Hopkins and Alais, the pretty pawn by Jane Merrow.  

As a conversation starter, I focused on the CINEMATOGRAPHY by Douglas Slocombe (Indiana Jones, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Great Gatsby, Never Say Never Again). It helps when you film at the gorgeous locale of Wales and England. The sweeping battle scene on the beach was impressive with black horses and sardonic son number 2 (John Castle) looking on.  Even in winter with barren trees and frosty glens and a cold castle, the wide angles were beautiful. However, I think his use of close-ups provide a balanced contrast and interesting angles. For example, I liked Eleanor at her dressing table having a monologue in a mirror. The turn of a skeleton key in the dungeon door. The shocked face of Richard behind the curtain as he learns his lover has betrayed him. The face of King Henry on his knees out on the ramparts and the camera pulls away from his face as he looks up to the stars. Did you like the cinematography? How about that pulling back technique Slocombe employs?  Did you find it distracting? 

Please welcome KATE LOVETON who has a great blog and where she shows off her creative writing talents. This was her idea to form a film club where we could discuss with one another a topic and a film. Kate focused on the DIALOGUE, a huge part of the success of the film:


What a pleasure it was to watch this intelligent film once again. There is so much to like about “The Lion in Winter,” and many aspects worthy of discussion:  staging, costuming, the score.  Best of all is the excellent acting and crisp, often biting dialogue.  It is by turns witty, wise, searing and venomous.
Henry II and Eleanor, once lovers, are now old-age combatants; rather than swords, their weapon of choice is the tongue – and each employs it well. When asked by his mistress how his wife is, Henry (who has kept Eleanor locked away in a nunnery for ten years) responds corrosively, “Decaying, I hope.”
Ah, but Eleanor gives as good as she gets.  She tells Henry’s mistress, “Henry’s bed is his province. He can people it with sheep for all I care. Which, on occasion, he has done.”  Ouch!
Confronted with the treachery and sodomy of her offspring, Eleanor, a master of understatement, dryly remarks, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
I think my favorite line was uttered by Henry after he’d locked his conniving sons up in the wine cellar. (Henry apparently has a talent for locking up family members). His mistress asks where Henry’s sons are. “The royal boys are aging with the royal port,” he replies.
If Henry and Eleanor are masters of waspish dialogue, their sons are masters of deception and murderous intent toward one another. When one of her sons pulls a knife on the other, the would-be victim whines that his brother was carrying a knife. The wearied Eleanor remarks, “Of course he has knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!”
Just so… and now it is 2015, and we are still barbarians.
Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole employ just the right shadings of tone to convey sarcasm, anguish, fear… and the underpinnings of sexuality. Hepburn’s Eleanor is a dangerous woman… and yet beneath the vinegar and venom, one gets the impression that she still burns for Henry. Her lust no longer physical, it plays itself out in verbal jousting.  Her love is a deadly thing. Hepburn makes us pity and admire her indomitable Eleanor, even when we most dislike her.
And Henry? O’Toole does a masterful job. It was a revelation to me to see O’Toole as the expansive, bellowing, manipulative Henry. He chewed up the scenery… yet he never made Henry a clown. When Henry realizes just how estranged his boys are from him, he stumbles away and cries out, “I’ve lost my boys.” In that moment, my heart went out to him.  He never really had them to begin with.

Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the dialogue and cinematography?

45 thoughts on “Lucky 13 Film Club: The Lion in Winter

Add yours

  1. the lighting and art direction were excellent, but the direction, which includes camera movement and placement, was unsure. the director overused his zoom lens to the point of distraction, with every zoom in or out screaming that he didnt know where he wanted to put the camera or how to compose the shot. there was also a meaningless overuse of both high and low angled shots. the only time he calmed down and put the camera in a decent place in relation to his performers was during lengthy scenes of dialogue, but even then, if peter otoole or katherine hepburn shifted position, the camera took after them like a dog. i will never understand why such an inexperienced director was chosen for such a prestige picture. the dialog was excellent, and the delivery by all actors great fun.

    1. I’m in agreement with you, Bill, regarding the zoom shots. I was distracted by the zooming and out. The British Society of Cinematographers gave him an award but that’s about all the accolades he received. I had to look hard for shots that appealed to me.

  2. I agree with Bill about the dialogue, and with Kate about the repartee and one-liners, though they are perhaps more suited to a modern ear, than an historical one. O’Toole delivered, and the scenery and sets were first rate. I just had that old problem with Hepburn. At times I expected to see Spencer Tracy sitting opposite her, or to see her about to light a cigarette. I am not a huge fan of hers, to be honest, so was unlikely to find her convincing in an historical epic of this nature.
    This is a good idea Cindy, and may prove to be a lot of fun for us film buffs!
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete, for your thoughts. I thought Katharine gave a winning performance. Man, her cheeks were certainly wet most of the picture. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen her in. I still wish at the end she wasn’t sent back to the tower. I think O’Toole and Hepburn were perfectly matched as a ferocious couple.

      1. Like or dislike of an actor/actress in a central role is always going to present a problem with any unbiased appraisal, Cindy. I obviously accept that Hepburn was a skillful and accomplished actress, but I just never liked her.
        (Not unlike my lifelong dislike of any and all James Bond films, whoever is cast as Bond.)

        I am more than happy that her performance touched you, and that you enjoyed the film so much. I might have liked it more, with a change of cast.
        Best wishes as always, Pete.

          1. I have never liked the Bond films, though I did enjoy a few of the original books. I always find them very silly, and think that the Austin Powers films send them up perfectly.
            Just me, I know, as they are loved the world over, with legions of devoted fans. One of my (many) foibles!
            Best wishes, Pete.

          2. Oh, stop. No foible, indeed! Just because you are British doesn’t mean you have to be a fan of Bond. It would be like saying just because I’m American, I’m supposed to like the Western. It’s my least favorite genre and I can only count on two hands Western films I’m fond of.

  3. Pete, did you pick up on the similarity between this script and Albee’s play,Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? For me, this explains the modern vulgarity of the dialog. As for the Hepburn, she was much better here, where the was room for humor, than in 1971’s tedious Trojan Women. I was only disappointed in this film because it followed Henry several years after “Becket,” which I thought a far superior film in all respects. As an acting partner for OToole, Hepburn just couldnt compare to Burton, who can infuse a serious role with humor without it turning into high camp.

    1. Bill, I was thinking Burton and Taylor all the way through this film. Whilst an historical setting should not preclude contemporary dialogue, I doubt that people of high rank at that time, would have ever spoken to each other in this fashion. ‘Becket’ was by far a better film, historically speaking, as were so many others.
      Burton was born for such wordy and serious roles. His ‘old-school’ acting style (and ability) has elevated many of the roles he has played, and his collaborations with Elizabeth Taylor are to my mind, unparalleled. (Except by Cassavetes and Rowlands, perhaps. )
      I should confess to a long-held dislike for Hepburn though, and this undoubtedly clouded any chance of a positive appraisal of ‘The Lion In Winter.’
      Regards from England, Pete.

    2. Ha! There were several times throughout the film I thought of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” with it’s acrid dialogue. Agreed, too, with Burton as an actor whose intensity and humor is subtle and more appealing.

  4. Interesting comments!

    Bill, what specifically did you find vulgar? I didn’t pick up on that as the time period in which the events take place was a vulgar time. I’m intrigued by that statement. I really enjoyed reading your comments.

    I was also quite taken with the comparison between George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and Henry II and Eleanor. I didn’t pick up on that, but thinking about it, I can see there is a comparison to be made – to an extent. George and Martha enjoyed hurting each other, but the stakes were insignificant: they only destroyed each other. With Henry II and Eleanor, a kingdom was at stake, and the boys (in the movie at least) appear to be such losers. Circumstances elevate the story, I think. So, we have the bickering, the hatred, the thwarted love… but we also have the future of England. Or so it seems to me. I really enjoyed thinking about the comparison.

    Today I was reading a few reviews of the film – would you believe the dialogue was criticized as being (1) too modern or (totally opposite) (2) too archaic or poetic. I found it just right. 😀 One critic said the dialogue was reminiscent of that in the film All About Eve. That is an apt obseration, I think. Both films featured stinging, sarcastic dialogue.

    Now I want to watch again (after many years have passed) Becket.

    1. I haven’t seen Becket, either, but wish too, as well. I liked the dungeon family scene best when Henry takes on his sons with a dagger, 3-1. And Eleanor encouraging him as a king to kill them for treason. And when he can’t kill his own son, she delivers coolly that great line, “No one thought you could.” To me, it’s the climax of the film and says volumes about her as a mother, she as a wife, she as queen. He, defeated and exhausted of being king. It’s that line that shows her triumph (as sparring partner) over all the men in the room. I was quite moved.

  5. Pete, I must confess Liz and Dick didn’t come to mind when watching this film. As much as I enjoy Taylor and Burton separately, I’ve never been a fan of their movies together. I can never divorce myself from the idea I am watching La Liz and Sir Richard, instead of the characters.

    I like the idea of Rowlands and Cassvettes, however. Two terrific actors, and able to submerge their personalities within a role. (That’s why Olivier was such an amazing actor; one forgot it was the great Olivier we were watching and instead were able to focus on the character.)

    I suppose that is the problem with Katharine Hepburn. One is always aware that it is Hepburn one is watching. It interferes with belief in the character. Even so, I greatly relished Hepburn’s performance in this film. I liked her acidic delivery of her lines.

    I enjoyed your comments – you got me thinking!

    1. I have always thought that the very personal and intense private relationship between Burton and Taylor allowed them to be exposed on screen like no other similar pairing.
      I am very happy to have got you thinking though.
      Best wishes from Norfolk. Pete.

  6. Welcome Kate! I finally saw this in its entirety this weekend, having only seen bits and pieces of it (ok I’ll confess, the Timothy Dalton parts as I had such a huge crush on him). Boy, talk about a battle of wits! Both O’Toole and Hepburn were outstanding. Their performances (well all of the cast) are decidedly theatrical but I enjoyed it. With family like this, who needs enemies, ahah. Yes, that scene when Henry lamented “I’ve lost my boys” moved me too, beautifully acted by O’Toole. Interesting that this was Dalton and Anthony Hopkins’ acting debut, they both could stand up against the acting greats. Interesting that Dalton played a French King, but with his thick Welsh accent intact 🙂

    1. Hi Ruth. It definitely felt Shakespearean what with the curtain scene and everyone listening in on each other’s betrayals. I enjoyed Dalton and Hopkins here. Dalton was smug and pretty and perfect as the neophyte King showing his ability for politicking.

  7. Kate, I use the word vulgar as meaning common. This is not the elevated language of kings and queens, but the vulgar tongue of the average person. I think the play consciously emulated Virginia Woolf, not only in language and character conflicts, but in the staging itself, particularly when the couple is prone on the ground after discussing the fates of the sons. which brings us to the issue of what was at stake in virginia woolf. it was the fate of their non-existant son, the same stakes as in the lion in winter.And the future of the sons IS the future of the kingdom. The nature of marriage also dominates both plays – its rules as well as its games, and of course its function.

  8. Well put, Bill. I did think of the lost child of George and Martha, but didn’t consider it closely. Perhaps I blot it out because I so dislike that film! 😄 You make compelling arguments, and have won me over. I hadn’t considered the staging – good point!

    1. I like the historical story far better than Albee’s play simply because you have a thicker plot line with the various relationships. That is, I loved the relationship between Eleanor and Richard. What she has done to keep him controlled! How about that revealing set of dialogue when she tells him when he must confront an exterior force, “Remember, son, convince them you really feel it.” Oh, the barb. Prince Richard. How horrible to grow up and have to harden yourself from the central betrayal of his life.”You’re so deceitful you can’t ask for water when you’re thirsty. We could tangle spiders in the webs you weave.” His only two loves played him for the fool. I was also intrigued by the relationship between Alais and Henry. She in particular. The pawn with nothing to lose. Her inability to have a future with Henry or children. In love with something she can’t have. Every character has a complicated relationship with all the characters. Brother to brother. Man and Wife. Lover to lover. Parent to child. It’s more satisfying to me than Albee’s play. I appreciate the humor in The Lion in Winter very much. It balances out all the yelling and arguing.

      1. I remember vividly that line uttered by Richard to his mother – and almost used it. Great line, full of anger, hurt, a sense of betrayal.

        If I could bear to sit through it again, it would be interesting to watch WAOVW, keeping in mind LIW and comparing.

        1. The dialogue is so faced paced with little time for scenes and information to register before they gallop away with more one-liners and confessions. I could watch it five times and find something new every time. I sure appreciate your participation in this endeavor, Kate! You were great. 🙂

  9. Hi Ruth!

    Anthony Hopkins has always expressed gratitude toward Hepburn for her kindness to him during the making of this film, admitting he was new and commenting that she was very gentle and helpful toward him.

    Timothy Dalton has been a favorite of mine since I first saw him on the old miniseries, “Centennial .”

  10. Kate, I would like to clarify my position on the Virginia Woolf influence. I believe that James Goldman’s 1966 was greatly influenced by Albee’s 1962 play,not the movie, which had not yet been made. However, Anthony Harvey’s 1968 film borrowed some of the staging from Mike Nichol’s1966 film version of Albee’s play.

  11. Cindy, Slocombe is a fine cinematographer, and the work he did on the Lion in Winter was excellent. Again, let me reiterate that the zooming was a directorial choice, If you disagree with me,check out the films of director Michael Winner, and you will see a consistent directorial style based largely on an overuse of the zoom lens.The primary job of the director of photography is the lighting, and the film was perfectly lit. Of course, Slocombe could have fought with the director against zooms, but he would have been overstepping his bounds.

    1. You know, I’m not sure I’ve been too clear on that. It gets confusing to me the responsibilities of either since some are more possessive and seem to do both (Kubrick) while other director/cinematographers have separate jobs. When I think of “great” cinematographers, I think they frame and shoot the scene with interesting or clear compositions. I think the director and cinematographer talk about how to film a scene and who is the one who actually carries out the story board. The two jobs seem interwoven it is hard for me to separate the two.

  12. I also loved Dalton here. Who would have pegged him for a future James Bond? But also, I want to give some props to Nigel Terry, who just passed away this April. I think he did a fine job as John, and he went on to play an excellent King Arthur in John Boorman’s Excaliber, as well as several leads for Derek Jarman, including Edward ll.

    1. Nigel Terry did do a fine job as John – he portrayed the whiny, self-indulgence and and easily manipulative movie John very well. I need to go back and take a look at the HISTORICAL John… could he have been this unappealing? One can understand why Alais would have preferred Henry…

      I haven’t seen Excaliber. I shall have to check it out. The next movie I watch is going to be Becket.

  13. You are right Cindy. Despite the job descriptions, it is impossible to tell for sure who does what on any particular film unless you are there on the set. all we can do is familiarize ourselves with the styles of the different workers and draw our own conclusions about their contributions. Since zooms are the refuge of insecure directors, and they are relied upon to an unnatural extent here, I made the assumption that it was the novice director making the choices rather the seasoned DP, whose work on the film is otherwise impeccable. To me, it is nearly unthinkable that he would be zoom-crazy, as his earlier work shows no preference in this direction. But I could very well be wrong. Slocombe might have taken the opportunity to experiment with the zoom lens on this picture because the director gave him free reign, just Gregg Toland went wild with the deep focus lenses on Citizen Kane because the novice director on that picture allowed him to do so. One of the challenges of film criticism is the determination of who did what on the picture, and there is no way we can be always be accurate in our assumptions. Still, we can formulate out theories and then do our best to support them. This is a great forum , it allows for so many perspectives to be shared, creating a more fluid, less rigid appreciation of the art.

    1. Bill, I have always appreciated your thoughts and contributions to the art. I never went to film school and know so little about the craft of it all other than what I’ve read or researched or listened to others with experience in the matter share. I agree, the forum is a way to hear a lot of insights making the film even better because of it. In a day or two I will announce November’s topic. I think the conversation starter works well. So if you are okay with everything, I’ll provide a brief summary, pick an angle from say 1970 – present and our topic will be “the evolution of femme fatale” with you concentrating on pre-70s. I will try to open it up so more people can supply their favorite examples.

  14. Pete, With the exception of Ryan’s Daughter, which I consider Lean’s masterpiece, I prefer his earlier work, especially the Dickens adaptations with Guy Green’s cinematography, than his work with Freddie Young, which I find generally too static.There is also too great a disparity between backgrounds and foregrounds in the later work, to the degree that some shots look to me like actors standing in front of postcards. Today, I like Zhivago more than I did in my youth, but I still cannot bear Lawrence of Arabia. Sure the desert is beautiful. but it is that way with or without Lean and Young. Still, that storm in Ryan’s Daughter is one of the most magnificent scenes in cinema history. For that alone, I will have to concur with your assessment of the Lean-Young partnership.

    1. Bill, you are very knowledgeable – I am enjoying your comments immensely.

      Zhivago is a movie I’ve only recently begun to appreciate. As for the book, I’ve tried to get through it several times and never seem able to master it. I’ve read Tolstoy, so I figured how hard could Pasternak be? Apparently, for me, not engaging enough.

      You mention Lawrence of Arabia. It is one of my husband’s favorite movies and he keeps after me to watch it, but I’ve never been that intrigued by the story… even so, I think I shall give in to him – after Becket. Too bad this isn’t about LOA – I would ask you why you can’t bear it.

  15. Kate, My mother was always up on the hot new books, so we had a copy of Zhivago in the house,ie theater and I loved it. it’s no War and Peace, but it sure impressed this 14 year old. Two years later,my school class was taken to see the movie, and it was the first time I suffered real agony in a movie theater. It seemed to go on forever, and I couldnt wait to get back to class. Then came Lawrence. Everyone was saying it was the best movie they had ever seen, but i couldnt make any sense out of the story, and I didin’t like any of the actors or characters. It was a big, sun-burned bore. yet as the years passed, people kept saying it was the best movie they had ever seen. So I went to see it again and again, each time it was re-released..but I got nothing out of it. Just sat there looking at the screen, comprehending nothing,and bored out of my skull. I watched it most recently about four years ago. Still didn’t like it. Why?Just personal aversion, I suppose. Maybe for the same reason you dislike Richard Burton, who is one of my favorite actors, and Pete dislikes James Bond movies.

  16. Even though I still haven’t seen the film in question I’d say your new venture is of to a fine start.
    I’ve especially enjoyed reading the back and forth between Bill and Kate, they’re both so knowledgeable and interesting too. I’ll look forward to more of the same next month.

    1. Hi Paul. Aren’t they, though? That’s the fun of it. Sharing thoughts about a film enriches the experience. I’m so glad you are willing to participate as a guest speaker in November! No one knows Michelle P. better than you. Can you email me today and we will talk? Danke!

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