The age-old axiom of ‘art imitating life’ has been exercised so often it has acquired general legitimacy as a means for one craft to successfully mimic the other. History on celluloid has provided entertainment fodder far more captivating than any textbook written by legitimate historians, and this – at least, in hindsight – seems to be a constant source of sour grapes and bitter lament for those who diligently do the real archeological legwork. Over the last hundred years, Hollywood has mined – and arguably, bastardized – virtually every period in man’s evolutionary l’histoire. Not even The Bible has escaped the movie’s delicious fermentations into popularized flights of fancy. And it remains a genuine oddity about mankind that what is presented to us in visual terms is frequently mis-perceived as derived from fact – even when we know better: art eclipsing life, as it were, to become its surrogate or even its canonized substitute in the long run.
Such is the case of William Goldman’s superb 1966 play, The Lion in Winter reporting to be a dramatization of the headstrong conflict enveloping the court of Henry II. In truth, The Lion in Winter bears no earthly claim to history itself. Virtually all of the dialogue and situations depicted are complete fabrications spawned from Goldman’s fertile imagination. There was no Christmas court at Chinon in 1183, and, no evidence to suggest Alais, the half-sister of France’s Philip II Augustus, was Henry’s lover. By contrast, the real Eleanor of Aquitaine had been imprisoned by her husband for plotting his overthrow, using their three sons as pawns in a diabolical game of botched succession. The Lion in Winter cleverly mangles this latter historical truth, using it as the crux of another palace/political intrigue-laden scenario. As it stands, we can either fault or excuse Goldman for his ‘artistic license’ because The Lion in Winter is so damn exasperatingly ambitious in concocting its faux history as a stand-in or parallel to the truth. We can also forgive Anthony Harvey his 1968 filmic adaptation, perhaps even more since, not only has he assigned screenwriting duties to Goldman (allowing him to further improve upon and embellish his own stagecraft in cinematic terms) but also, because Harvey has assembled a superb cast for what is essentially a fascinating – if slightly wordy- two-person battle of wills.
The supporting parts, few and far between (for Goldman has chosen to remain relatively faithful to his play), are filled by some fantastic ‘new’ talent, including Jane Merrow as Alais, future James Bond, Timothy Dalton – her steely-eyed brother, Philip II, Nigel Terry (Henry’s preferred heir apparent, John), John Castle (the overlooked and malicious middle son, Geoffrey) and finally, future fava bean eater, Anthony Hopkins as Richard, the eldest of the offspring and Eleanor’s definitive choice for the throne. In the leads originally fleshed out on the stage by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, director Harvey has set forth for consideration two of the most prominent acting talents of the twentieth century: the formidable Katharine Hepburn and consummate actor’s actor, Peter O’Toole. In hindsight, O’Toole’s is the more impressive performance, particularly when one considers he was a mere 38 years old at the time, sufficiently aged to compliment Hepburn’s 61 year old wily matriarch. It’s the verbal sparring between these two tigers of stage and screen that proves so perfect a counterpoint to this discordant tale steeped in deceit, lies, manipulations and insults.
Goldman is nothing if unapologetic about making Eleanor and Richard contemptible, often repugnant usurpers of each other’s authority; this aged hen and rooster, fighting for the same scrap of waning power neither is likely to possess in their own lifetime. It remains a tribute to Goldman, and the performances of both Hepburn and O’Toole neither character ever devolves into a filthily unlikeable horror, each carefully weighed with deliciously vial and impertinent things to say, expertly timed outbursts to challenge and defile the other’s reputation while, miraculously, never tainting their own. We can empathize with every last horridly imperfect barb; the aging King who has no viable heir apparent to bequeath his throne; the empress of these ineffectual male offspring, forced to concede her part in their bungled rearing into this motley brood of scheming reprobates. The Lion in Winter is essentially a familial tragedy where personal domestic crises threaten to topple a nation; the tale of one man’s legacy doomed to molder and decay after his time because he has failed to prepare himself and his kingdom for his own inevitable decline from this life into the next.
Having avoided his truer duties as husband and father, Henry is now faced with a bitter decision to either choose the least effective and worthy of his sons – John – to succeed him on the throne, or whittle this triage out of their divine rights altogether by secretly having Alais, whom Henry has already betrothed to Richard but since taken as his lover, bear him more offspring, presumably with the intent to raise them differently in preparedness for the future. Alas, time is not only of the essence, but seemingly has run out. Henry is old; his three children by Eleanor already of an age to succeed him on England’s throne and put a decidedly definite stop to his future ambitions. As Alais points out, any chance for their – as yet unconceived – sons supplanting Richard, John or Geoffrey can only be made concrete if these aforementioned are either put to death or imprisoned for the duration of their natural lives. Despite her misgivings, Alais is hardly bitter. She is, in fact, a loyal and devoted lover – compassionate too, making it all the more difficult – if not entirely unbearable – to despise her.
On the flipside is Eleanor, her one ace against Henry’s plan to make John King her retention of the Aquitaine, a strategically important region Henry desires to possess, but Eleanor holds dear and intends to bequeath to Richard instead, thereby insuring a future power struggle between her two sons. Of course, the wrinkle herein is neither is fit to rule; John, the slovenly and pimple-faced stunted adolescent, easily swayed by his misguided devotion to Geoffrey – who is loyal to no one except himself – and Richard, whose keen militaristic intellect and stern maturity bear the scars of a wounded childhood. This continues to haunt and slowly erode his sanity. Neither would make a good King for obvious reasons. Determined he should work out the kinks to his plan during the pending Christmas holidays, Henry commands his trusted advisor, William Marshal (Nigel Stock) to gather his scattered progenies to Chinon.
The first few scenes in Anthony Harvey’s masterpiece are devoted to establishing the psychological complexities of these three potential heirs; John, who is steadily improving in his swordsmanship under Henry’s expert tutelage; Richard, who narrowly is spared the torturous decision to decapitate a foe after rendering him useless during a jousting tournament, and Geoffrey, ever satisfying his lust for conquest by setting up bloody battles between rival forces on the windswept beaches. Alais questions Henry’s devotion. She loves him dearly, but is plagued with concern the memory of a former mistress, Rosamund Clifford – recently deceased – has not abated. Alais also worries about the influence Eleanor may exert over Henry’s heart. By his panged silence, Henry confesses a minor lingering attachment to Rosamund’s ghost. But he openly refers to Eleanor as ‘that bitch’ and ‘gargoyle’ who occupies no residency apart from her imprisonment in Salisbury Tower.
Christmas is destined to be flawed by the reunification of these warring factions under one roof at Chinon. Almost immediately, Eleanor pledges Henry a rough time of things. John, willy-nilly and blinded by his allegiance to Geoffrey, is both acrimonious and confrontational toward Richard. Eleanor, however, calls each of her sons out in tandem, exposing their deficiencies to one another. You can’t fool mama, I suppose. And Eleanor is, after all, most interested in goading her excommunicated husband with incessant anecdotes; how she first bed his late father, and throughout their marriage was passionately intertwined with some of Henry’s most ardent detractors and closest friends; forcing him to reconsider his loyalties at court. Mere lies or cynically unvarnished truths, exposed at last and much too difficult to digest? Who can tell? Eleanor is a devious hellcat, conniving one moment, tenderly affectionate the next; using her soft spoken intellect to weed out the darker veracities concealed deep within.
Henry refuses to bend from his cause. At one point, stalking the abandoned castle by night in a rage, he commands its inhabitance to stir and make ready for the instantaneous marriage of Alais to Richard. While Alais is crestfallen, Richard is stunned – and suspicious. What could daddy be up to? Much to Henry’s chagrin, at the last possible moment he cannot bring himself to cast off his mistress; revealing too much his own devotion to her. Later, in a private moment, Alais will confess a great relief to Eleanor, also her enduring admiration for Eleanor and her desperate love for Henry. Try as she might, Eleanor cannot fault, condemn or despise Alais for her legitimate affections. Into the thick of things arrives Alais’ brother, Philip of France; a young and ambitious monarch with decidedly definite ideas of where Henry’s loyalties ought to ally; in a pact made between Henry and Philip’s late father, and Alais; cementing an alliance between England and France with Alais’ proposed marriage to Richard. Regrettably, in the interim since accepting – and spending – Alais’ dowry, Henry has fallen hard for the girl himself and lost all interest in preserving this tenuous alliance or to make Richard the future King of England.
The Lion in Winter is not particularly interesting in resolving any of these plot points in any concrete way. Henry briefly entertains the clumsy notion to free the Queen from Salisbury Tower; the price for her freedom the relinquishment of all rights to the Aquitaine. It is an offer fraught with incalculable dangers and uncertainty – particularly for Eleanor, who is bitter and starved for the opportunity to be free of her confinement once and for all. Alas, Henry has proven himself to be a fairly ineffectual King; fickle in his decisions: first, to imprison his boys in the dungeons of Chinon for the rest of their natural born days in order to satisfy Alais’ request to marry and procreate. Seizing the opportunity to bribe a guard, Eleanor skulks off to the dungeon to free John, Richard and Geoffrey, instructing her sons with knives to rise up against their father. Too bad, blood proves far thicker than water. Henry’s arrival at the dungeon is met by temporary conflict. Enraged, Henry challenges his boys to take up arms against him. But even Richard is unable to challenge his father. Coward that he is, John flees, followed by Geoffrey. Richard is disillusioned, storming off in a huff. Alais now realizes her dreams of marrying Henry can never be. His heart, indeed – if begrudgingly – belongs to Eleanor. At the movie’s end, nothing is decided, Eleanor happily departing on the royal barge for her return to Salisbury Tower with Henry promising her release for Easter.
Referencing its title from the latter period in Henry II’s reign, The Lion in Winter is an extraordinary medieval soap opera. It rarely devolves into fits of subjective pique. James Goldman’s erudite screenplay is occasionally slavish in its politicized platitudes. But these are counterbalanced by an even wittier spate of salaciousness situated in a place of less than cerebral palace intrigues; also, by the expertly nuanced performances put forth by this superior cast. Goldman has taken every human frailty, the malicious and the fractured, and condensed both its sincerity and sinfulness into a compendium of ambition and greed. The joy and the magic to be derived from this consolidated exercise is almost exclusive to the hurly-burly between Hepburn’s queenly harridan and O’Toole’s curmudgeonly liege, more emasculated pussycat than teething lion. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography captures the bleakness in this winter’s tale, both figuratively and literally.
Well, well…another Hollywood classic on Blu-ray out of Spain (Amazon.es), this one manufactured and distributed by an operation calling itself ‘Creative Films’. The Avco Embassy credit at the beginning of the picture, as well as the ‘Joseph L. Levine presents’ producer’s credit remain intact, and what follows is, frankly, far more impressive – if not perfect – than the old MGM/Fox DVD being peddled this side of the Atlantic. Again, the disc defaults to Castellano 2.0 with subtitles that can be easily switched off and changed to English 2.0 DTS mono. I have to say, this is a far more welcome package than the aforementioned Anne of the Thousand Days from Feel Films. I’ll point out the minuses first. Color fidelity never attains a level of saturation one might expect from a 70mm Panavision presentation. I suspect, this hi-def transfer of The Lion in Winter has been mastered from 35mm elements instead; owing to the absence of the original 6-track stereo and the less than perfect visuals. Still, what’s here is much better than what we’ve seen in the past. For starters, age-related artifacts are subdued, if still present. Also, color balancing is more finely nuanced; particularly exteriors which show off some impressive fine detail in grass, trees, brick and mortar, wood grain, etc. Close-ups are occasionally a mystery, looking either vibrant and crisp or decidedly softer than normal. On the whole, colors are less pronounced than I expected.
Kate’s red Christmas robe pops with unanticipated vibrancy, as do greens and browns in the color palette. But on the whole, the Eastman stock isn’t all that exciting. There’s no real ‘wow!’ factor to these visuals. Film grain seems to have had some undue DNR tinkering applied and contrast is weak. Again, this is 2.0 mono rather than stereo; an oddity and a curiosity, given the film has supposedly been ‘restored’ and re-screened in Hollywood not so long ago in its original stereophonic glory. Exactly why this one hasn’t made it to Blu-ray in the U.S. since remains a genuine mystery. This Spanish offering is ‘region free’. It will play anywhere in the world. So, if like me, you just can’t wait for Fox to get off their collective duffs and start remastering their great back catalog in true 1080p hi-def, then I suppose this Blu-ray import will have to do. It isn’t awful, and it bests the old MGM/Fox DVD by a gallant stride. But it’s far from perfect or, for that matter, the true capabilities of either Panavision 70 or the Blu-ray format. Judge accordingly and buy with caution – also, a lower than average level of expectation for perfection.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)