Friday, December 20, 2013

The Lion in Winter: The Worst Family Christmas Ever

Merry Christmas, everybody. My gift to myself this year is to free myself from the alphabetical format that I imposed at the outset of this blog, because frankly, It's been holding me back from talking about some of the scores I'd really love to dive into.

So, with that, I give you John Barry's Medieval-ish masterpiece, The Lion in Winter. It's a cracking good and seriously atypical score from the composer best known for the swinging sounds of James Bond or the lyrical grace of Out of Africa. It's especially relevant at the moment, as it of course stars the late, great Peter O'Toole, along with Katharine Hepburn and a young supporting cast chock full of future superstars.

Bad Cheer for Christmas

The Lion in Winter is relevant, too, for its holiday season setting. I've mentioned before that my wife and I have a taste for "alternative" film offerings around Christmastime. Sure, we love White Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life and all that, but it's even more fun to approach the holiday season from a slightly different angle, and The Lion in Winter definitely gives us the opportunity to do that.

Based on the stage play by James Goldman, The Lion in Winter takes an anachronistically arch look at the family of King Henry II of England in the 12th century C.E. With its broadsword-sharp dialogue (rapiers hadn't been invented yet) and diabolical dysfunction, it plays as though Edward Albee were suddenly dropped into the Middle Ages - Who's Afraid of Thomas Becket, perhaps?

Part of the deliberate anachronism of the story is its conflation of contemporary Christmas traditions with the Medieval story - the story takes place during King Henry's "Christmas court" at Chinon, deep in the heart of France. (The rulers of England at the time, of course, were Norman French who spent a good deal of their time in their home country. In fact, King Richard the Lion-hearted - Henry's son, brilliantly played by young Anthony Hopkins in this film - is said to have despised England and vastly preferred living in France, when he wasn't leading Crusades. So much for his legendary status as an English monarch.) There's a Christmas tree, characters wrap gifts for each other, etc.

Carols of Cruelty

Why is all this relevant to the score? Well, John Barry gets into the spirit by wrapping his Medieval-inspired score around some new-old Christmas carols that he wrote himself, but sound suitably ancient to have been sung by characters in this cold world where even kings have to wash their faces with freezing water in the morning. Barry himself, in the soundtrack album's original liner notes, mentions the influence of Gregorian chant and Medieval religious texts on the evolution of the score, but listening closely, one realizes that the organizing theme might just be the merry Christmas music that the characters themselves sing.

Two of the carols themselves are put into the mouth of Alais, the most innocent and optimistic character in the play -- Henry's adopted ward and lover -- within the film itself. (Hey, I mentioned this was a seriously dysfunctional family.) They're included on the album, a little disappointingly, performed by a full chorus. "The Christmas Wine" (Track 5) has English lyrics but a French sensibility, hinting naughtily at the joys that Alais finds in Christmas 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.

It's sweetly sexy, just like Alais herself, but like everything else in the film, rubs salt in a particular wound of the main characters: Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, generously released from prison in the Tower of London to join the Christmas court. They fight tooth and nail, both personally and politically, but have a depth of bizarre love and understanding of one another that drives all the conflict of the story. Henry's choice of Alais as his consort in her absence is especially galling to Eleanor, who raised the girl practically as her own daughter. So, even this little ditty has claws, which Alais digs subtly but keenly into Eleanor by singing it in her presence in the film's most intimate scene between the two women.

Allons Gai Gai Gai

Another carol somewhat unexpectedly forms a lot of the dramatic propulsion of Barry's score. "Allons Gai Gai Gai" (Track 3) is a very simple little tune in French, roughly translated to, "Let's go, joyfully." Again, Alais sings it near the beginning of the film, tossing it off absent-mindedly in a moment of relative peace and bliss, but its tune haunts the rest of the score. Quite frankly, I just noticed this connection while listening to the album last night, and it hit like a lightning bolt. Of course Barry would use a corruption of the melody of a simple little song to underscore the perverse power struggles inside this corrupt royal family.

The melody, in fact, opens the entire film, in modified form as a strident fanfare in the main title sequence (Track 1). There are lyrics to this piece as well, but they're as far away from "Let's go, joyfully" as it's possible to get. An ominous organ propels a menacing chorus singing a Latin text about "dies irae" - the day of wrath when God will judge everyone at the end of the world. (The very same text was also set to music by British composer Benjamin Britten just a few years before this score was written.) Meanwhile, the credit sequence shows us close-ups of sinister gargoyles and angels in a dark Gothic cathedral, hammering home a dark and fatalistic tone that hangs over this twisted tale, which is designated as a "comedy" by its author.

Of course, it is darkly funny that a lighthearted folk melody should come to accompany an apocalyptic chorus, which I think is the entire point behind Barry's thematic tapestry. The same theme emerges in different forms and tones throughout the film, most notably in "God Damn You" (Track 6), underscoring Henry's heartbreak at his apparent betrayal by all three of his living sons, each of whom is jockeying for political gain at the expense of the others in his own way. The melody is taken up by cellos in a melancholy mood as Henry wanders the castle, stunned and despondent. Wordless male voices hint at his roiling anger as the camera suddenly leaps into the air to show a God's eye view of Henry - looking down in judgment and wrath.

By the end of the film, however, the "Allons Gai Gai Gai" melody has assumed a more hopeful tone, as the events of the Christmas court draw to a close ("We're Jungle Creatures," Track 12) and Henry bids his wife a strangely fond farewell - strange because he's sending her back to prison, all the while shouting his love for Eleanor. "I should have been a great fool not to love you," Eleanor says in reply. The music stirs and we get a triumphant send-off worthy of the greatest adventure epic, ecstatic chorus and all. This is another bit of sardonic humor, but not without plenty of genuine warmth and affection for these broken characters. After all the back-biting, scheming, manipulation, and outright assaults of everyone on everyone else, we're right back where we started, with two remarkable people on a journey who love each other in spite of - and perhaps because of - their bitter feuding.

And everything else . . . 

There's so much more to say about a score like this. At the time of its composition, Barry was by far best known for his jazzy, hip scores for the James Bond series, so this seemed like a serious left turn, but in fact Barry describes it as a "labor of love." Indeed, there are hints of the lyrical beauty and stylistic signatures of much of his later work deep within the score to The Lion in Winter - Eleanor's elegant arrival in a royal barge (Chinon/Eleanor's Arrival, Track 2), as shimmering and resplendent as the Queen herself on her floating throne. Even the chorus can't restrain its enthusiasm, singing in Latin, "Eleanore, Reginae Anglorum, Salus et vita." -- "To Eleanor, Queen of the English, health and life." It's ironic again in its beauty and grace, accompanying what amounts to a royal prisoner transfer - but you can hear in it many of the hallmarks of Barry's later romantic scores. Broad chords, languorous melody, accompanied by high-flying solo trumpet, English horn, and other embellishments - even a church bell. There are echoes of this in dreamy works like Out of Africa or Dances with Wolves.

Darker traces of Medieval life creep around the dark and dusty corners of the castle constantly. Among the Medieval texts from which Barry borrowed was a single phrase, "Media vita in morte sumus" - "In the midst of life we are in death." Barry deploys this toward the tense ending of the drama, when it seems for a moment that all three of Henry's sons may rise up against their father (Track 11). This one phrase brings home the theme of divine judgment, but also the nasty, brutish, and short nature of Medieval life (Henry, at age 50, says, "I'm the oldest man I know"), and the constant threat of assassination faced by kings in a brutal age. Being a king in the 12th century meant essentially being a warlord or gangster, powerful only so long as you couldn't be bested by someone with a bigger or better army. It brings the entire film hurtling to a point of seemingly apocalyptic crisis, before the tension subsides.

If you've never seen The Lion in Winter before, do yourself a favor and check it out. You needn't know anything about history to enjoy it; the whole story is self-contained and marvelous. Despite its darkness and soul-baring conflict, it's often howlingly funny -- and of course, it's propelled by an unusually beautiful and intelligent score. It's a good check against whatever family drama you might be facing at the holidays. No matter how hard it gets, you're probably not going to end up at the business end of a dagger over who gets to inherit Grandma's china. And you'll have an endless source of wonderfully vicious quotes to pull if it does get nasty. As Henry says, "What shall we hang? The holly, or each other?"

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