Lion in Winter

The Lion in Winter (1968)

The Christmas Countdown (Day 5)

The Lion in Winter is available to rent or buy now.

With a fascinating mix of film and theatre, Anthony Harvey’s adaptation of the celebrated stage play, The Lion in Winter, offers us a lavish portrait of a medieval Christmas. Here the festive celebrations of 1183 are a mere backdrop as Henry II of England brings his family together with the secret intention of announcing his successor from his three sons. One of The Lion in Winter’s outstanding attributes is how it brilliantly combines political and personal turmoil. Here, the question of royal succession dovetails with a family’s irreparable dysfunctionality.

Thanks to the masterful screenplay (written by and based on James Goldman’s play of the same name), The Lion in Winter remains a riveting watch. There is almost an air of Game of Thrones in the political scheming alongside a dash of a medieval Succession. However, a strong screenplay also needs a great cast to reach its full potential, and here there is no denying the sheer strength of Harvey’s film.


The Lion in Winter boasts one of the greatest ensemble casts of any 1960s movie (and yes, I am aware How the West Was Won was also released in this decade). Here Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn’s natural chemistry and magnetism is glorious as they bicker relentlessly. And given that O’Toole portrays a middle-aged character while being 36 years old and 25 years Hepburn’s junior, this on-screen relationship is even more remarkable. But add the feature debut of Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton as Richard Lionheart and Philip II of France, and The Lion in Winter becomes a striking example of stage meets screen. Its dramatic power, held aloft by a cast who were, and would become, legends of cinema.

There are times where The Lion in Winter feels slightly too stagey with a few too many static shots. However, this was an all too common problem in many 60s and 70s historical dramas. But trust me, this minor flaw never distracts from the sheer talent on display or the outstanding screenplay. Interestingly, The Lion in Winter rarely finds a place in any classic Christmas movie countdown despite its festive backdrop. I have always considered this to be quite strange considering the film’s commercial success and Oscar haul.


However, maybe this is due to the festivities playing second fiddle to the historical family story at its heart. It’s royal drama, awash with family disagreements, backbiting, and one-upmanship; in fact, you may find yourself questioning if anything has changed since the Christmas of 1183. In my opinion, The Lion in Winter is one of the greatest films of the 1960s. While at the same time speaking to an eternal Christmas truth, family get-togethers, royal or otherwise, are often shrouded in rivalry and competition.