The Liar in Winter

Last night I was finally able to see the new 4K restoration of The Lion in Winter on a large screen. What better time than now after the Inauguration, to watch a film with old actors in a drama of the dark ages in which all the characters are only interested in personal goals and are willing to break all civilized norms to achieve them (including making deals with avowed national rivals)? In the middle of things, Henry II (Peter O’Toole) even says, “God I love winning” (or something to that effect) and he is constantly telling other people how he has just won. Owing to the need to preserve the 12th century atmosphere, however, the King did not use twitter to express himself.

Henry’s family is also surprisingly contemporary. All of his children are unattractive schemers. I won’t involve our current ruler’s wife in comparisons, because my suspicion is that her own gold-digging would have been satisfied being the wife of the owner of the hideous tower on Fifth Avenue where she would happily live. (Like Eleanor in the London Tower?) But if anyone is like her in the film, it is the innocent pawn Alais (Jane Merrow), mistress of Henry, who by treaty with France is require to marry her off to one of his sons. That would make Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) who? Marla Maples?

The movie itself is quite entertaining, and you owe it to yourself to re-visit it. The acting is the kind of mid-twentieth century stage-for-screen type acting (as in Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that we see no more. Today’s substitute is the pretentious mannered dramas, usually period pieces, where acting is designed to garner awards and burnish a star’s seriousness cred. (Independent filmmakers, of course, don’t have the capital to purchase rights to plays, so the field is left to the majors,. who see these as prestige projects—Hollywood’s version of pro bono work.)

What separates the film (and the play it was based on) from our current tragico-farce is of course the language. The stage- and screen-play by James Goldman is witty and intelligent. There are just enough references to the age of Henry and before to anchor the play in the middle ages, but there are intentional anachronisms designed to advise the viewer not to become too concerned about the historicism of the work. Disregard of factual and historical accuracy is a hallmark of the current administration as well, but our present day actors on the national stage have no wit and are not playing to an intelligent audience. I could not bring myself to watch the inaugural address, but reading the text impressed on me how verbally stunted and rhetorically challenged our new president is. If the goal was to impress upon his followers that he was not among the elites of the country in terms of intellect, gracefulness, eloquence or knowledge, he surely accomplished that with his speech. Big ideas generally cannot be expressed by one simple declarative sentence after another. But even the small ideas which he had seemed uncomfortably confined.

In the end of the film we grow to respect, if not admire, both the ancient king and queen, even after we acknowledge Eleanor’s confession that “we are jungle creatures.” Henry discloses to his wife that he wants to control succession because he has learned that peace and honest government are preferable to war, something he spent his life pursuing. . And so even though the ambitions of both Henry and Eleanor seem checkmated in the end, we have some sort of sympathy for both of them. Having seen the nominees of our current leader, his advisors and confidants and watching him act the snarling bully and ungrateful recipient of nearly a plurality of the nation’s vote (short by 3 million or so), breaking tradition, however quaint, that requires the new president to at least act humbled by the responsibility, we have no similar admiration or sympathy for this vulgar egoist. So when the movie ended, the faint good feeling from watching professionals act in a polished and eloquent production, the dark reality of our current situation returns. This is the beginning, not the end, of a national nightmare. And it’s going to get much uglier and more tragic before it’s over. And it won’t be amusing or edifying to watch.

  1. Well, looks like a good movie to pass some of the time away

    • I keep forgetting that most people alive now think of the 1960s as ancient history; that’s why I said that people owed it to themselves to see this movie in a theater (assuming that everyone had seen it). If you have not, you really should, whether it’s in a theater, on a TV or even a smart phone. Katherine Hepburn won one of her 4 Oscars for this. Peter O’Toole was nominated. It introduced Anthony Hopkins (as Richard the Lion Hearted) and Timothy Dalton (as France’s Philip II). It also has great performances by Nigel Terry and John Castle. Had I thought anyone who read this might not have seen it I would have actually described it. But the sexual politics is treated with a very clever and witty look, the misery that these people bring on themselves is palpable and, like Casablanca it is filled with lines that I have used all my life. (Katherine Hepburn, after a devastating brutal attack on Henry (using his sexual insecurity) says to herself: “What family does not have its ups and downs.” Henry, after a negotiating session with Philip II in which it looks like Philip has him checkmated gives a speech about how he had “won” because he obtain information without giving any which I have used to explain strategy to my own litigation clients. I strongly urge you see it; you will not regret the 2 hours.


    • Incidentally, wanderwolf, I got a post of yours by email, which I could not find on your blog. Was it a private post?

      • Ah, yes. I had published something, but then wanted to change it to unpublished because I wanted to continue editing and then realized one cannot “unpublish.” So, I made it private. It should be public again, though… please let me know if it isn’t!

        • Here’s how I “unpublish” something in order to edit: 1. Copy the text version of the post (the “html” in some “themes”) and preserve it on a text editor or word processing program. 2. Send the entire post to trash. 3. Create new post and paste the text version on it (remembering to paste it in the “text”/”html” editing mode of WordPress). 4. Do whatever edits you want. 5. Publish again.

          The reason I copy the text/html version is that it preserves all hypertext coding (such as links to other websites and links to any pictures in the post).

          This of course does not eliminate any posts that have been sent by email (or picked up by webcrawlers), but it does allow you to get rid of one version for purposes of giving you time to edit.

          This advice is from someone who can only see typos/mistakes/bad ideas on the computer after hitting the enter/send button.

          • Ah! Great advice. Thank you!
            And yes, somehow, those mistakes are only there after I press edit.
            This time, there were a few ideas I needed to put more thought into before I posted for the world to see. Unlike some presidents, I do care about the impact my words make and how they can be interpreted. This isn’t one of my better posts on that front either, but I don’t want to dwell forever on the Address. Must look forward!

  2. I haven’t seen this film in many years but I remember it well. Juxtaposing it with our current political situation is brilliant, DK, so thank you for this post. The only line I remember, however, is when Hepburn and O’Toole are having one of their famous fights about where she’s to live. She says something and he replies, “When pigs fly!” She returns with, “There will be pork chops in the treetops tomorrow!”

    Living in Cincinnati, with all of our hoopla regarding Flying Pigs, makes me want to start some kind of business and call it “Pork Chops in the Treetops.”

    Having listened to one of the better public speakers I’m aware of for the last 8 years, it’s jarring (to say the least) to listen to this person now. And I doubt it’ll get any better. I’ve learned over the years that, when you’re dealing with a special-needs person, you can’t expect multi-syllabic word choices or profound thinking. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, I think.

  3. DK, you are very articulate and I am enjoying your political posts in particular. Just one, very picky, little thing about Ms. Hepburn: Her first name is spelled Katharine. (I am fixated on this because I have the same name, spelled the same way, and almost everyone spells it wrong.)

    The post itself, though, is brilliant and it does lend itself to comparison to today. Doesn’t it seem odd how the same themes and same problems repeat themselves over and over throughout history? As my husband, a former history teacher, says, “Those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it.”

    • Amoralegria: Thank you for your kind words. Also for the heads up on Ms. Hepburn. I am somewhat embarrassed over the mistake. Not just because I try to get such things right , but also because one of my daughters is named “Katherine” and I usually try to police the spellings of that name. Interesting that your name is “Katharine.” Although the names of my twin daughters were with agreement with my wife, I was careful to ensure that the spelling was consistent with the way the characters in Dostoevsky novels spelled them. If they ever find out who I named them after, they can console themselves with the fact that they were two of the few characters who were not morally compromised (or at least not intentionally immoral).


      BTW, I changed the spelling of Hepburn’s first name in the post.

    • Let me add one little addendum to what I said.

      Re your husband’s quote. I would say that it’s not just those who don’t know history. I’ve been bound to repeat things even when I knew that it happened before many times. And it looks like we are all going to have to repeat things, not because we don’t know what will happen, but because Donald Trump doesn’t.

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