The Lion in Winter and Becket are two landmarks of historical cinema, and interestingly Star Peter O’Toole in the lead playing Henry II in two different parts of his life (it is amazing what a beard will do). Both are epic films, featuring angry, convoluted (and fictitious adaptations of) historical plots during Henry II’s dramatic reign as King of England from 1154 to 1189. You’d be amazed at what shenanigans a dysfunctional ruling family can get into in 35 years. And Peter O’Toole does an excellent job of playing to very different, but nevertheless extremely dysfunctional versions of Henry II in this film.
Becket takes place first, historically. In Becket, Petter O’Toole plays a self absorbed, over confident, and somewhat effeminate ruler. Becket is Henry’s favorite Saxon, a poor nobody who befriends Henry, and is eventually turned into the Archbishop of Canterbury. The movie seems to suggest that while their might not be a physical relationship between becket and Henry, Henry is nevertheless in love with him. As one person says to Henry: “You have an obsession about him that is unhealthy and unnatural!” Becket, however, has more complicated feelings. He seems to care more for his position than for Henry. But, since Henry is the source of all of his good fortune, he remains the faithful servant of the king. Even Henry driving Becket’s lady to suicide does not diswade his attention. But when he is made of Archbishop of Canterbury, all of that changes. Becket is in a position that is (at least arguably) as strong as Henry’s, and Becket now feels that his obligation is to God, not to the King. This leads to much butting of heads. As Henry says, “I would have gone to war with all England’s might behind me, and even against England’s interests, to defend you, Thomas. I would have given away my life laughingly for you. Only I loved you and you didn’t love me. That’s the difference.” Henry eventually becomes so mad at Backet that he yells, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” to his court. This leads to four knights killing Becket in the middle of a service. However, even this does not rid Henry of Becket; Becket is made a Saint, and Henry II is publicly flogged in Canterbury Cathedral (interesting note – this is also the concluding scene of the historical novel Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett). Henry is devastated by the death of Becket, and mourns him even as he makes biting comments at his tomb.
The Henry of The Lion in Winter is an older, gruffer, and much more manly. This is proven in one of the opening scenes, where he tells his current love interest that, “In my time I’ve known contessas, milkmaids, courtesans and novices, whores, gypsies, jades, and little boys.” (I am convinced that the little boys comment is a direct reference to his relationship with Becket in their youth, but I have no evidence of this.) The family is still as dysfunctional as ever, but this time Henry’s jousting partner is his wife, not Becket. For a pretty accurate representation of how this family operated, please look at this family portrait by Kate Beaton. Everyone fights constantly, and there is much shouting and intrigue to be had by all.
The two films are very interesting to watch together because they show such different representations of the same king, played by the same actor. Similarly, the representation of Elanor of Aquitaine (Henry’s wife) is ridiculously different from one movie to the other. Historically, Eleanor was famous for being stunningly beautiful. However, this might have been partly because she was the richest women in Europe at the time, and owned arguably the wealthiest region of France. That kind of power will make just about anyone quite pretty. But in these two fils, they play both sides. In Becket, Eleanor is quite unattractive, and come across as rather stupid. In The Lion in Winter, Eleanor is played by Katharine Hepburn, who was stunningly beautiful. She is older in this film, but that is perfect – Eleanor was supposed to be a good 11 years Henry’s senior. Moreover, Eleanor is just as intelligent and manipulative as Henry in this film.
These two films, both iconic in their own right, show two very different portrayals of the same King and Queen during two different parts of their rule. This is done to better play up different parts of the plot (as much as was allowable in the 1960s – gay men as main characters wasn’t really done then). Nevertheless, the two portrayals mesh in interesting ways, complicating the image of this period of time.