Home > Reviews > THE LION IN WINTER – John Barry



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Producer Joe Levine had a contract with Peter O’Toole and was looking for a film to again showcase his talent. He found the vehicle in the Broadway play “The Lion In Winter” by James Goldman that offered dramatic dialogue, which would play to O’Toole’s thespian strengths. Anthony Harvey was brought in to direct the film and they hired an amazing cast to support Peter O’Toole (King Henry II), which included Katherine Hepburn (Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine), their three sons, Anthony Hopkins (Richard), John Castle (Geoffrey), and Nigel Terry (John). Also joining was Jane Morrow (Henry’s mistress Alais) and Timothy Dalton (King Philip II of France). Hopkins and Dalton were both making their screen acting debuts.

The story is one of court intrigue, deception, betrayal and brutality. Set in France in 1183, an aging King Henry II frets about his legacy and the survival of his kingdom. He therefore connives a Christmas reunion where he hopes to name his successor. He summons his scheming but imprisoned wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine; his mistress, Princess Alais, whom he wishes to marry; his three sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John, all of whom covet his throne; and the dashing King Philip II of France (who is also Alais’s brother). As a ruse, Henry proposes to betroth Alais to Richard, and crown him Prince, heir to the throne. Unbeknownst to Richard, he makes a side deal with Eleanor, which ends her imprisonment, and grants her freedom, in return for the rich province of Aquitaine, to be gifted to John. When the deal is revealed at the wedding, Richard is outraged and calls off the wedding. Having believed Henry’s intentions, John, and Geoffrey conspire with Philip II to overthrow their father. Henry and Phillip meet to negotiate a settlement to avoid war, only to discover that Phillip has been plotting with his sons John and Geoffrey to overthrow him. Learning that Richard and Philip were once lovers provides the crowning touch, and so an outraged Henry imprisons all three sons. He soon realizes that this path suites no one, and so releases his sons and sends Eleanor back to her castle, hoping that they can one day find the happy elusive future that seems beyond their grasp. The film was both a commercial and critical success, nominated for seven Academy Awards including, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Film Score, winning three; Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Film Score.

John Barry was in demand following his enormous success with Born Free (1966), and was very pleased to land the project. He was given complete creative control over the score and chose to support the film with his first passion – choral music. He felt that such an approach would best represent the sensibilities of 12th century English court, as well as so speak to the domination of the Church of Rome. He spent time studying Latin texts and early liturgical manuscripts. Barry utilized his chorus in a traditional manner, reciting Latin lyrics written specifically for the film. These chants found expression that was liturgical, but also, menacing. He also brilliantly used the chorus as wordless accompaniment to the full orchestra. In addition, bells permeate the score, sometimes as liturgical accompaniment, yet also tolling from afar, supporting portentous trumpet calls.

“The Lion in Winter” is a magnificent score highlight and a masterpiece. It supports the roll of the Opening Credits against a backdrop of hideous stone gargoyle images. The music takes the form of an Overture, and offers one of the most powerful, and stunning openings to a film in film score art. Dramatic heraldic horns sound the nine-note Main Theme, dire timpani bellicoso thunder, unsettling piano rhythms shift to and fro, and fierce chanting fills us with dread, and portends doom – the Latin lyrics claim that “the day is nigh at hand, the day of wrath and vengeance and darkness on the land, day of thick clouds and voices, of mighty thundering, a day of narrow anguish and bitter sorrowing.”

“Chinon” opens with ethereal wordless chorale supporting the Henry’s royal summons of Eleanor to Chinon, for a traditional Christmas reunion. A transition to tolling bells is portentous. At 1:08 we segue into “Eleanor’s Arrival” as we see her approaching the castle on a riverboat. Barry supports her transit with a wondrous score highlight where chorus and orchestra join in a sublime communion. He offers elegance, adorning his languorous melody with chorus, expansive chords, solo trumpet declarations, English horn and tolling bells. Eleanor is resplendent atop her throne and Barry perfectly captures her regal bearing, her nobility, and her beauty. The marriage of film imagery and music in this scene is extraordinary, testimony to Barry’s mastery of his craft.

“Allons Gai Gai Gai” was conceived as a traditional French song with James Goldman providing the lyrics. The song calls forth joy and happiness, and is sung a capella by mixed chorus. It supports a quiet moment between Henry and Alais. Worth noting is that this theme permeates the score. It begins its journey in the light, but Barry corrupts its joy, and twists it into something dark, and vengeful, only to have it regain the light triumphantly in the film’s finale.

In “To the Chapel” Eleanor calls Henry’s bluff to marry off Alais to Richard, regain the province of Aquitaine, as the price for her freedom. Barry offers an ambiance cue with repeating phrases by dire horns, which sow tension and unease. Hostilities between Henry and Eleanor and their sons erupt, threatening to consume all. Plaintive wordless chorus portends doom and closes the cue. Wow. In “The Christmas Wine” Alais is singing near the hearth in Henry’s bedchamber and is joined by Eleanor. Barry wrote this song with lyrics provided by James Goldman. It has English lyrics but for me provides a French sensibility. The lyrics are offered fro m her perspective as the lone sweet person in this family’s sordid mess. Though a tender melody, its final two lines inform us of her role with Henry – “The Christmas wine is in the pot, the Christmas coals are red. I spend my day the lover’s way, unwrapping all my gifts in bed.”

“God Damn You” is a magnificent score highlight, one that bears a terrible loneliness and pathos of despair. The marriage of chorus with interplay of the Main and Joy Themes is exquisite. Barry underscores this pivotal scene with a corruption of the “Allons Gai Gai Gai” melody of joy. This juxtaposition is brilliantly conceived. Henry is a devastated man, betrayed by all three of his sons, whom he has now disowned. His legacy is foreclosed and he seeks solace from Alais, but leaves inconsolable, taking refuge atop the castle’s battlements. We see Henry cowering, devastated, and suffering in a crucible of pain of his own making. As the camera pulls away upwards, Barry raises a deafening crescendo, which mirrors Henry’s tortured soul, shattering us. My God, this cue is a masterpiece.

“To Rome” is a powerful scene, which reveals Henry rousing his guards and arresting his three sons. As they are thrown into the wine cellar we see fear in their eyes. Barry sows a vengeful soundscape that is truly frightening. He supports this tense scene with a juxtaposition of a line of angelic ethereal wordless chorus and dire horns declarations of the “Allons Gai Gai Gai” theme. Additionally, there are declarations of the Main Theme, and the Dies Irae Theme, or (Day Of Wrath) theme from the Roman Catholic requiem Mass. Within the words of the Dies Irae chant is the Day of Judgment, which devout Christians believe they will ascend to heaven while the accursed will descend unto the fire pit of Hell. Employing this reference was a masterstroke. “The Herb Garden” offers a free form ambiance cue. We open darkly with tolling bells and then are carried plaintively by wordless male choir that is in turn joined by female choir. The soundscape is one of sadness, which flows to and fro like a nighttime breeze, As the cue comes to conclusion, violins struggle for hope, yet we never achieve resolution.

“How Beautiful You Make Me” is an extended scene, which reveals Henry and Eleanor traversing the pain of their lives, their sons, and the love they once had for each other. When Henry informs her of his plan to have the Pope annul their marriage so he can marry Alais and have new sons, all Hell breaks loose. Barry understands that the music needed to speak not to the anger, but instead to the tragedy and pathos. As such he underpins the scene with formless repeating phrases by wordless choir that is plaintive, yet becomes dark, and menacing. In simplicity, there is beauty. In “Media vita in morte sumus (In the Midst of Life We are in Death)” the film and score achieve their emotional apogee. Henry confronts his three sons whom Eleanor has armed. A fight ensues yet neither side seems willing to strike the mortal blow. When John fails and falls, Henry pulls out his sword and prepares to execute Richard, who stands unflinching, holding his ground prepared to take the mortal blow. Barry builds the tension simply, yet powerfully atop a truly horrific crescendo of chorus ever-repeating “Media vita in morte sumus”, which shatters us. Yet, Henry falls to his knees, unable to commit filicide, and we close with a diminuendo.

“We’re Jungle Creatures” is a wondrous score highlight, which with every listen brings a quiver, and a tear. Christmas is over and it is once again time for Henry and Eleanor to part ways; he to an uncertain fate, and she back to England and imprisonment. The scene opens with an unabiding sadness, carried by a plaintive rendering of the Allons Gai Gai Gai Theme. Yet from out of the sadness hope flickers, and then breaks its bonds to gain flight. We bear witness to one of film score art’s greatest film endings. The music begins a glorious and refulgent ascent ever upwards, culminating with triumphant restatements of the Main Theme, which then ends in a flourish! It is a magnificent finish!

There are multiple recording of this score, including the 2001 complete score release by Silva. I chose the 1995 Sony/Columbia release, which was conducted by John Barry himself, as I believe it to be the best. This was Barry’s personal favorite and the fact that he had only three weeks to write it is simply remarkable. The score offers a masterful and congruent soundscape, which elevates the film. The interpolation of liturgical chorus and chants, as well as incorporating two songs, brought authenticity to the film. How he corrupted the purity of Joy Theme to mirror the truly horrible in-fighting and personal animus of the characters was brilliantly conceived. The opening overture stands as one of the greatest film openings ever and the finale, one of the most glorious! I am inclined to believe that “The Lion In Winter” was his Magnum Opus, and I highly recommend you add this score as an essential part of your collection.

I have embedded a YouTube link for the brilliant Main Title Overture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3g1XMakoEQ

Buy the Lion in Winter soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Lion in Winter (2:30)
  • Allons Gai Gai Gai (1:41)
  • Richard’s Joust/Geoffrey’s Battle (1:20)
  • Chinon/Eleanor’s Arrival (3:38)
  • Fanfare for Philip/The Great Hall Feast (1:22)
  • The Herb Garden (4:15)
  • To the Chapel (1:44)
  • Eya, Eya, Nova Gaudia (2:16)
  • How Beautiful You Make Me (3:00)
  • God Damn You (4:25)
  • The Christmas Wine (2:41)
  • To Rome (4:17)
  • Media Vita In Morte Sumus (In the Midst of Life We are in Death) (2:10)
  • We’re Jungle Creatures (2:48)

Running Time: 36 minutes 16 seconds

Sony/Columbia CK-66133 (1968/1995)

Music composed and conducted by John Barry. Orchestrations by Robert Richards. Score produced by John Barry. Album produced by Didier C. Deutsch.

  1. twebb2
    March 21, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    I only heard this for the first time a year ago. It is incredible music, and so fresh! It sounds cutting-edge even today. It’s so different than the Barry music I was used do. Fantastic work.

  2. April 1, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    The Lion in Winter is a masterpiece filled with amazing performances, superb characters, fantastic dialogue and so many quotable lines.

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