By Alan Hurst

1968 was a spectacular year for movies, from art house films like Ingmar Bergman’s Shame, to mainstream hits like The Planet of the Apes, to more challenging fare like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Best Picture nominees that year were Carol Reed’s well received adaption of the Broadway musical Oliver!, William Wyler’s big screen transfer of Funny Girl, Franco Zeffirelli’s beautiful film of Romeo and Juliet, Anthony Harvey’s bold adaptation of the play The Lion in Winter, and Paul Newman’s directorial debut Rachel, Rachel. There were only five nominees at that time, so it meant films like Shame, Faces, The Planet of the Apes, Pretty Poison, Rosemary’s Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey were left off the list. A pretty impressive slate of films.

Oliver! was the eventual – and safe – winner, but of the five nominees my choice would have been The Lion in Winter, a rousing and exciting adaptation of the Broadway flop from a few years before.

It’s the story of Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) who have gathered at Henry’s residence in Chinon ostensibly to celebrate Christmas, but also to battle over the announcement of Henry’s successor to the throne of England. Henry and Eleanor have three sons – all jockeying for position as the heir apparent – while their parents take sides, manipulate, lie, cajole and continually plot against each other and anyone who happens to be in their way. This is a family that defines dysfunction, but it’s also a wildly entertaining group.

Director Anthony Harvey does a great job visually bringing the play to life, although it is still set primarily in a castle. He keeps his camera moving from room to room, outside, upstairs, downstairs and you get a real sense of what life was like in the court of King Henry, but it also gives the film energy and underscores the constantly changing game of cat and mouse these characters are playing with each other. There are several wonderful directorial flourishes throughout the film – the race to get one of Henry’s sons married, a scene with Henry and King Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton) where all three of his sons are hiding in Philip’s room after having betrayed Henry, and Hepburn’s monologue about faded beauty in front of a mirror. But for me the film reaches a visual peak very early with the arrival of Eleanor by barge – the director has Hepburn perched on a throne as the rowers move the barge up the cold, muddy river to the accompaniment of the regally dramatic James Barry score. You feel transported to another time – and as Hepburn disembarks the boat with choreographed confidence, you also see that the director has staged one of the most spectacular movie star arrivals in screen history.

The screenplay by James Goldman was based on his stage play and what didn’t work on stage – for whatever reason – works brilliantly on screen. Although set in 1183, these characters almost speak in a way that would make you think that Goldman was influenced by Noel Coward, but with a little more testosterone. The dialogue crackles with anger, wit and sarcasm and if it feels a little too modern for the setting, I’m fine with that because it makes everything so much more accessible and delicious as these characters do battle with each other. Goldman’s script won him the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

Both O’Toole and Hepburn are perfect. Although 25 years Hepburn’s junior, O’Toole has the bearing of the larger than life Henry and is made up to appear 50. Hepburn was 60 at the time and, since the character she’s playing was 11 years older than Henry, it’s ideal. O’Toole had a major success with the character of Henry II in the film adaptation of Becket (1964) four years earlier and both he and co-star Richard Burton received Oscar nominations. He’s even better here – blustery, romantic, scared and totally unable to decide who should be his heir. This is a strong man who knows he won’t be strong forever and he’s frightened about getting old and ensuring his legacy. O’Toole communicates all of that. He received another Oscar nomination and should have won – I think this is his best performance, even topping Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

And what a perfect role for Hepburn. She was an actress who could play both comedy and tragedy with equal success and she gets to do both here. She’s very funny with some of Eleanor’s more sarcastic and cutting dialogue, but her performance has a tinge of sadness that underscores every scene. Eleanor is being kept a prisoner by Henry for many reasons, the primary one being he doesn’t want her plotting against him and putting the wrong son on the throne. Hepburn’s Eleanor is a smart woman – probably smarter and more strategic than Henry – but her downfall is that she still loves him despite her incarceration and she knows she will never win him back. Hepburn was at the peak of her powers as an actress here – it’s a performance with no vanity but she never looked more regal or commanded the screen with this kind of authority. She deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar that year, in a tie with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl.

Also strong in supporting performances are Anthony Hopkins as Richard, the son that Eleanor wants on the throne; John Castle as the over looked middle son; Jane Merrow as Richard’s fiancé and Henry’s mistress; and Timothy Dalton as the seriously conniving King of France, who is also having an affair with Richard. The one weak spot for me is Nigel Terry as John, the weak and not very bright son that Henry wants on the throne. He plays John so close to imbecilic that it throws things off a bit.

Technically, the film is a treat with beautifully designed sets and costumes evoking the 12th century and the gorgeous yet realistic cinematography of Douglas Slocombe. For once, you see how dirty and primitive everything might of have been in 1183. But next to Hepburn and O’Toole, the star of The Lion in Winter for me is John Barry’s spectacular score. From the opening credits onward, the music is thrilling. It’s one of the all time great film scores.

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