The Lion in Winter

If you’re into verbal abuse, you could do worse than memorize some of the insults from this film.  Here’s one, an exchange between Prince John and his brother, the future Richard the Lionheart.

Prince John: My God, if I went up in flames there’s not a living soul who’d pee on me to put the fire out!

Prince Richard: Let’s strike a flint and see.

Or how about this welcoming line, spoken by King Henry when he’s just let Eleanor of Aquitaine out of prison for Christmas:  “What shall we hang first? The holly or each other?”  Then there’s my favorite, spoken by Eleanor to Henry in their final showdown:  “I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice.”

Compared to this lot, the intrigues of the current royal family come off like a Disney movie.  None of them rages like Peter O’Toole’s Henry, or plots like Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor.  I ask you, where can you find the kind of stab-in-the-back diplomacy that took place between Richard’s sons and King Philip of France?  And knowing as much as we now do about George VI’s speech impediment, it’s difficult to believe he could have put anyone in their place through verbal attacks alone.

Gladiator dialogue just isn’t done these days.  It’s all internal now, even in films adapted from stage plays.  But in the early sixties, plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” proved that words were just as sharp as sticks and stones, and “The Lion in Winter” comes out of that era.

It’s well worth watching, not only for Hepburn and O’Toole’s performances, but you get to see a young Anthony Hopkins in the role of Richard and Timothy Dalton as Phillip II, the first motion picture appearances for both actors.  Hepburn won an Oscar for her portrayal of Eleanor, which makes up for the one she earned the previous year for the embarrassing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

 (15 March 2011)