The case of Becket and The Lion in Winter is a unique one within cinema. Even though they are technically not made by the same people, these two films share many characters, including the lead played by Peter O’Toole. They both draw on the history behind Henry II and yet differ from both the actual history and each other. But why did these films make changes, and what do they say about both the craft of film and the time that they came from? By examining the characters’ portrayals and the differences within, one sees that the historical accuracy provides a basis for the films to branch off into stronger narratives and cultural reflection.
“Historical accuracy” (or the lack thereof) is often the first criticism against Hollywood period pieces. Yet, for the characters in these films, the historical sources themselves must be taken with a grain of salt in terms of their “accuracy,” especially in regards to Henry II. Peter of Blois describes Henry very favorably, saying “no one is more cunning in their counsel, more fiery in speech, more secure in the midst of dangers, cautious in fortune, or constant in adversity,” and then goes on to say that he believes that the king was “in no way guilty” of Becket’s death. However, in the text by Gervais of Canterbury, Henry is described as being an adversary to Becket and violently persecuting those who supported him. The root of this likely comes down to Peter being one of the patrons of Henry and Gervais being a monk who knew Becket,