Oct 042018

Rating: ★★★½☆

Avco Embassy Pictures, 1968, 134 minutes
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Jane Merrow and Timothy Dalton
Screenplay: James Goldman
Producer: Joseph Levine, Jane Nusbaum and Martin Poll
Directed by Anthony Harvey

Historical Background

Within the space of a few years, Henry II became one of the most powerful men in Europe. Inheriting Anjou and Normandy from his father, he was chosen as a husband by Eleanor of Aquitaine, duchess of a territory a third the size of modern France. After defeating of a coalition of would-be suitors of Eleanor led by her ex-husband, the king of France, Henry invaded England, since his mother had a claim to the throne but had lost a civil war against her cousin Stephen. Fortunately for Henry, many barons were tired of war, and King Stephen’s heir died, so the two rivals accepted an agreement where Stephen would rule until he died, and be succeeded by Henry. A year later, Stephen passed away and Henry became king of England in 1154, ruling a collection of territories that stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. His dominions grew when he extended his influence into Ireland and Brittany. However, Henry had made numerous enemies along the way, so when his heir revolted in 1173, resentful of his lack of actual power, he found many allies, including his two younger brothers Richard and Geoffrey, encouraged by their mother Eleanor. Despite the formidable odds, Henry triumphed. A generous winner, he forgave his sons and their allies, but refused to forgive his wife’s betrayal and locked her up in comfortable captivity. Unfortunately, Henry had failed to actually deal with his heir’s complaints, so young Henry’s anger festered until he revolted again a decade later. The revolt attracted far less support, and young Henry died, ending Henry’s carefully arranged succession plans.

Plot Summary

King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has to re-arrange his succession plans since his heir died recently following a failed revolt. While the simple solution would be to divide his kingdom among his three sons, he has built an empire and he wants to make sure it survives him. Determined to find a solution, he invites his two eldest sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins) and Geoffrey (John Castle), and his captive queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn), as well as King Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton), to celebrate Christmas with him and his youngest son John (Nigel Terry). Henry has been having an affair with Philip’s half-sister Alice (Jane Merrow), but wants her to marry John and remain his mistress. She must marry or Philip will demand the return of her dowry, a vital border region between Normandy and France. Realizing that Henry and his sons are too powerful together, Philip conspires with each of the three sons, hoping to lure one or more away from their father.

Historical Accuracy

The research is good but the premise does not make sense. Proud of his empire, the screen Henry wants to give it intact to a single son, rather than have it disappear when it is divided among his sons, but the real king made specific plans to do exactly that, naming Richard as heir to most of his territories. In fact, the arrangement had to be made quickly after the death of his heir to reassure the barons that there would be a stable succession.

The screen Henry explains that he keeps Eleanor locked up because she led too many civil wars, which is a major exaggeration. Admittedly, the real woman was one of the organizers of the Great War (1173-1174), when Henry faced revolts from his three oldest sons, revolts in England, and invasions from Scotland, Flanders and France, which nearly succeeded. While he forgave pretty much everyone, Eleanor had apparently proved to be a dangerous opponent or he was genuinely hurt by her betrayal, so she was kept locked up until he died, thus denying her the opportunity to revolt again.

While the additional revolts are a minor error, the screen Eleanor’s obsession with Henry is overdone. In particular, Eleanor’s claim that she fought Henry just to get him back makes her appear to be a spurned wife, furious that her husband has found someone younger. Although a physical attraction probably existed between them, they seem to have married because Eleanor knew that she could not rule her duchy alone, and he was the best option. Tired after giving birth to eight children, the real Eleanor had separated amicably from Henry several years before the Great Revolt, concentrating on ruling her beloved Aquitaine and training her favorite son Richard to succeed her. Rather than manipulate her sons and ex-husband into a war against Henry in an attempt to force him back to her bed, she likely started the rebellion because he was trying to integrate her Aquitaine into his empire. Instead, the screen Eleanor supports Richard merely to anger Henry.

Determined to give Aquitaine to John, Henry promises to free Eleanor so she could visit Richard wherever he is killing people. She agrees if he lets Richard marry Alice, which results in a brilliant scene where the entire family is immediately dragged to the chapel to witness a marriage between Richard and Alice. Until Henry admits that he has been outmaneuvered by Eleanor and abandons the pretense.

It turns out that Richard had always wanted to be wanted by Henry, basically he just wanted to be loved by his daddy, which nearly had me rolling on the floor, probably not the reaction that the screenwriter had in mind. Admittedly, our knowledge of the actual historical figures is limited, and none of them left diaries, but nothing about what is known of Richard indicates a strong bond between him and Henry.

The fictional Henry’s love for Alice seems genuine, and there were persistent rumors that she had become the actual man’s mistress. While contemporary chroniclers were relentless gossips, the situation between Henry and Alice would have naturally raised eyebrows, since she had remained his ward way past the age when women were traditionally married. Moreover, when Richard finally became king and could choose his wife, he decided to end the betrothal even though the insult would likely turn Philip from a grudging ally into an enemy, and marriage to Alice would help ensure peace between the two dynasties.

Speaking of illicit affairs, the script portrays Richard and Philip as former lovers, which may have seemed bold when the film was made, but has little basis in reality. This affair seems to be based on a passage in a contemporary chronicle that they were so close that they shared the same bed and ate from the same plate, but that flowery description of their relationship was intended to confirm that they had become close allies, not lovers. Other chroniclers wrote that Richard would rape the wives and daughters of his vassals and then give them to his soldiers, which again should be viewed as an attempt to damage his character.

The screenplay was written by an Englishman, so Geoffrey offers all of England’s lands in France in exchange for Philip’s support for the crown. However, they were not England’s lands, they were the lands of Henry and his children. This may seem like pedantic quibbling, but it is a vital distinction. The only territory that came with the English throne was England, everything else, specifically Normandy, Maine, Anjou and Aquitaine, was held individually, which is why the division among the heirs was complicated.

Simply hoping to sow discord among the members of a rival dynasty, the screen Philip admits that he will pledge to support Richard and then withdraw his troops. To be fair, the real Philip was always happy to scheme with Henry’s sons, and each of Henry’s four sons made their way to Paris at one time or another to seek the French king’s aid in a revolt. But it is wrong to suggest that he would not fight, since he did repeatedly, and he was with Richard when Henry was forced to make a humiliating surrender to his son.


Aside from the superb cast, the film is worth watching for the great scenes of ordinary life in the background. Despite their exalted status as royalty, life is not very comfortable, at least by modern standards, since Henry has to break the ice on his bowl of water in the morning. The camera always focuses on the fire, as if to emphasize that everyone would be aware of the location of the sole heat source in a stone castle during winter. Not sure if they existed at the time, but I love the candles that show the hours.

Based on a play, it is very stagey with razor-sharp dialogue and fast-paced verbal sparring. At one point, Geoffrey and John are plotting with Philip, when Richard knocks at the door. Geoffrey worriedly asks where can they hide, and Philip smoothly replies: “That’s what tapestries are for.” The work with the tapestries is a standout scene.

The presentation of the main characters is a bit two-dimensional. Since the real sons did not grow up together, there would not be a strong family bond between them, but the constant flow of contempt becomes tiresome. Admittedly, there was endless conflict in the family, but this seems exaggerated. However, the presentation of Henry as an alpha male who enjoys plotting, and probably does not know how to stop, nails his character.

Peter O’Toole had played a younger Henry II in Beckett (1964) four years earlier, While Katherine Hepburn was twenty-five years older than O’Toole, the real Eleanor was nine years older than Henry. Still, O’Toole captures Henry’s near manic inability to sit still. Hepburn received the script for the film when she was grieving following the death of her long-term lover Spencer Tracy, and she felt the role suited her perfectly.

The wealth of background information is overwhelming, but I doubt that the script was intended to explain the history, just present the complex nature of their shared family history. While the movie compresses years of plotting into a single weekend, I will say that the portrayal of the struggle for the throne as essentially a nasty family squabble is a correct description of the countless plots and revolts that produced numerous burned farms and dead peasants simply to improve the relative position of one family member.

  • kevin hardy

    This is one of my favorite movies. I have seen it many times because I routinely showed it in my Western Civilization course. I have the dialogue memorized. And what dialogue! And what acting! Of course it takes license with the facts, but this was undoubtedly a dysfunctional family and the movie is more accurate than you would suspect. Keep in mind it is basically imagined as “what would have happened if this group would have gotten together for X-Mas in 1183”? What happens in the movie is within the borders of reality. I like your historical background, but I would say it is unlikely there was an affair between Henry and Alice. I also think the movie demonizes Geoffrey a bit much, for cinematic reasons. The use of Richard’s homosexuality is brilliant, although as you correctly point out, it was not accurate. The movie greatly exaggerates Henry’s desire to hand the throne to John. That would have been an insane flouting of the rules of succession and Henry was not insane. And the movie does not do a good job explaining why the boys were rebellious. As you point out, Henry was too paltry in granting them power. I disagree that Eleanor supports Richard just to anger Henry. The movie makes it clear he is her favorite and she is right that he deserves to be the heir.

    • historyonfilm

      I agree that it is a brilliant movie and it was a pleasure to watch it again and again as I chose images for the review. The screenplay takes some liberties but it still is an accurate portrayal of an extremely dysfunctional family that was correctly called the Devil’s Brood.