THE LION IN WINTER: Blu-ray (Avco Embassy, 1968) Kino Lorber

The age-old axiom about ‘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 archaeological 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 fermentation 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 film 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 hag or 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 as 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 another offspring, presumably with the intent to raise it 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, narrowly 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.
The Christmas reunification of these warring factions under one roof at Chinon is destined to rupture these fragile familial bonds. 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 insidious 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, employing soft-spoken intellect to weed out the darker veracities concealed deeper 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 far too much of 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 interested 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 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 finish the job. Coward that he is, John flees, followed by Geoffrey. Richard is disillusioned, startled perhaps to discover his own conscience, and storms 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 bittersweet finale, nothing is decided. Eleanor departs on the royal barge and note of queer satisfaction 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 salacious barbs situated in a place of less than cerebral palace intrigues; also, by the expertly nuanced performances put forth by the film’s superior cast. Goldman has taken every human frailty, the malicious and the fractured, and condensed its sincerity and sinfulness into a compendium of as compelling and unbridled 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. 
Oh no…not again. But yes: for nearly six years we in North America have been pensively waiting for a distributor to acquire the rights to The Lion in Winter as a ‘region 1’ Blu-ray offering. Too many U.S. rights holders continue to hold film lovers on this continent hostage, parceling off their richest from these bygone eras without much aplomb or care – disinterested in satisfying, while the European market continues to be saturated with ‘region B’ locked goodies and quality affairs most of us (who do not own a region free player) cannot access. Region-locking deep catalog titles ought to have been abolished by now. But no. So, apart from a careworn ‘region free’ bootleg in hi-def, The Lion in Winter only emerged from Spain’s ‘Creative Films’ in 2014. Kino Lorber’s announcement last year, that it would become the custodian of a new 4K image harvest for this beloved classic, had everyone giddily excited. So, it is with more than a modicum of disgust to report the resultant disc is, in fact, not much better than its bootleg Spanish import. In fact, it looks as though the very same flawed elements were used to ‘remaster’ this disc – marginally cleaned-up and with ever-so-slightly better color balancing applied.
We’ll give it to MGM/Fox – the current rights holders – all of the original elements on this indie production, released at the time by Avco Embassy via United Artists, have survived. So, I would sincerely like to know why they haven’t been used – or rather, not given their due herein. Kino’s only fault is to have accepted custodianship of such a flawed transfer; even touted it as a 50th Anniversary 4K remaster, because what is here is anything but solid or gorgeous. Image instability is the big thing; the bouncy-bouncy quality of the entire presentation fairly annoying to say the least. Color is adequate. I mean, the reds in Eleanor’s robes offer some visual flash, though minus the refined detail one readily associates with a 4K image harvest. Film grain is inconsistently rendered. It’s either present or gone; the image, during these latter absences, veering dangerously close to those waxy sins committed during the early days in Blu-ray remastering. On the whole, it just looks soft and dupey. As per the audio…oh, boy. It’s out of sync, ever so slightly, but enough to be frustratingly transparent on any display greater than 50 inches. Blown up to wall-size projection, it’s damn exasperating. We get an audio commentary from director, Anthony Harvey and a brief interview with sound specialist, Simon Kaye; holdovers from another time. Bottom line: The Lion in Winter deserved better. Like too many MGM/Fox releases of late, it didn’t get it and likely never will. Such shortsightedness sickens me.  Judge accordingly and buy with caution – and lower your expectation for perfection…quite a bit. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)