The Perfect Holiday Movie For 2023 Is a 55-Year-Old Historical Drama


The Big Picture

  • The Lion in Winter is a historical drama that offers a refreshing twist on Christmas movies by showcasing personal and political feuds during the festive season.
  • The film taps into our fascination with rich families bickering, a concept that has been popular in both film and television, such as The Crown and House of the Dragon.
  • The dysfunctional family dynamic at the center of The Lion in Winter is relatable and provides compelling drama without resorting to extreme violence.

The Lion In Winter is a 1968 film that may not come to mind immediately when thinking of 1960s historical dramas, with it being a big year for the genre. Lawrence of Arabia and Cleopatra are tough acts to follow, but that doesn’t mean there’s a decent amount of prestige behind this film. Directed by Anthony Harvey, editor of Kubrick classics Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, The Lion In Winter also has what would eventually be an all-star cast. Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, at the early stages of their careers, are found at the forefront of this fictionalized retelling of King Henry II’s reign of the Angevin Empire. This is also the major debut of both Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton.

Set in the 1183 holiday season, King Henry (O’Toole) is setting up his youngest son John (Nigel Terry) as his heir, who will eventually marry his mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow). This not only upsets Alais, who’s being treated like a bargaining chip but also upsets Henry’s eldest son, Richard (Hopkins), who is making his bid for the crown. To add more drama, Henry’s estranged wife Eleanor (Hepburn) has returned from imprisonment for the Christmas festivities. As if that weren’t enough, the King of France (Dalton), Alais’ half-brother who may have had an affair with the middle son Geoffrey (John Castle), also drops by expecting a marriage to Alais to go through. From there, we sit back and watch the Academy Award-winning fireworks. The scheming nobles, sniping siblings and plays for the crown is enough to give even Game of Thrones a run.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

1183 A.D.: King Henry II’s three sons all want to inherit the throne, but he won’t commit to a choice. When he allows his imprisoned wife Eleanor of Aquitaine out for a Christmas visit, they all variously plot to force him into a decision.

Release Date
October 30, 1968

Anthony Harvey


134 minutes

Main Genre

‘The Lion In Winter’ Encompasses What We Love To Watch

The Lion in Winter is a great Christmas movie if you’re looking for a break from the usual Christmas movies. It’s not very often we get a historical Christmas movie set outside the Victorian Era or the World Wars. While it’s not exactly a film that oozes candy canes and sugar plums, there is something very authentic about personal and political feuds exploding during the festive season. Additionally, there are a lot of elements in this film that we can’t get enough of in entertainment, and an argument could be made that this 55-year-old movie is a good summation of them. However, if I could only use three words to describe much of the prestige viewing we enjoyed over the last year or so, “Rich families bickering” wouldn’t be a wrong answer.

We’ve had our fair share of bigger historical dramas, such as Oppenheimer, but our fill of rich families bickering appears more on the small screen than on the big. The Crown is about the same concept of “vying for the seat of power,” give or take a few centuries, but House of the Dragon feels the most on theme. The idea of rich families bickering even crossed into the horror genre with The Fall of the House of Usher, with the reckoning of an insanely wealthy family that doesn’t particularly like each other. Throw in the continuing stream of reality shows that tackle the same subject, and it’s clear to see that this is something that very reliably interests us.

‘The Lion In Winter’ Is About A Royally Dysfunctional Family

It makes a lot of sense to say class disparity is the reason why we like The Lion in Winter. As the gap widens, it’s nice to see people with obscene amounts of money, power, and prestige breaking down. It’s like an acceptable brand of cringe culture, a universal example of punching up when you see them taken down a peg. Eating the rich is practically its own subgenre, and that’s been the case for far longer than 55 years.

Another reason would be that writing about dysfunctional families has a lot of great drama, especially if each member is their own special kind of awful. There’s a prize at the end of many of these stories that allows any one of the people on screen to have the world in their hands. Generational wealth, and arguments about inheritance, can add a political and financial element to a story that, at the end of the day, is deeply personal. As fun as that may be, this causes an issue: If the characters aren’t easy to empathize with, it’s hard to care about the stakes.

Take away the crown, and what is left at the center of The Lion In Winter? A patriarch going through a midlife crisis, his much younger girlfriend, three children of divorce vying to be the family favorite, and the matriarch returning to stir the pot. It’s a classic dysfunctional family who are trying, and failing, to get it together for the holidays. They’re rife with contention but can’t bring themselves to do any real harm to one another despite their ability to do so. In a landscape where we see the concept taken to deadly extremes, it’s almost refreshing that The Lion In Winter doesn’t end in a Red Wedding-style massacre.

This is why The Lion In Winter is a great Christmas film to watch, aside from the sizzling dialogue and a healthy amount of classic Katharine Hepburn sass. It’s also why many of us love to watch noble houses implode, from the days of William Shakespeare to 1968 to today. No family is perfect and completely happy, everyone carries emotional baggage, and it all spills out at the holiday dinner. Even if we can’t relate to the conflicts surrounding ruling a country, a messy family Christmas dinner is something many of us anticipate, and dread, every year.

The Lion In Winter is available to rent on Apple TV

Watch on Apple TV+


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