Peter O’Toole, who died earlier this week, changed my life.
No, I never met the man or had any other form of contact with him, beyond what most people would: his movies. But in a way he was responsible for setting the course for a part of my life.
A friend (plus a parent who did the driving) took a small group to see Lawrence of Arabia for her birthday. I think I was twelve, maybe thirteen—and it was the first movie I can remember understanding in an adult way. I was literally stunned into speechlessness by it, for most of the ride home. It was an unexpected turning point for me.
But it was two others movies that shaped several years Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968). In case you’ve forgotten, O’Toole played the Henry II (1133-1189), King of England, Count of Anjou, and lord of a string of other realms, including Ireland. He had inherited Anjou from his mother’s side of the family, and then he consolidated his hold on that part of France by marrying the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine (who was a memorable woman in her own right, having married both the King of France and the King of England (in sequence, not at the same time), and outlived them both).
Up until those two movies, most of what I knew about the Middle Ages came from watching episodes of Robin Hood, a television series from the 1950s. Twenty years later I was a medieval art historian; my doctoral thesis was about the sculpture which decorated a monastery in Angers, in the heart of Anjou. I owe that in no small part to Peter O’Toole.
I’ve never been one to watch historical movies or read historical fiction. Mostly I pick holes in them, yelling at the screen or the page about what they got wrong—and, yes, I can do that for Becket (the fresco in the apse of what is supposed to be the church at Canterbury is the wrong era and style altogether). But Peter O’Toole’s two performances sold me on Henry. Because of those I’ve visited Canterbury Cathedral; I dragged my mother and daughter to Sens Cathedral in France, where Becket spent his years in exile; I’ve visited Chinon (also in France), where Henry imprisoned Eleanor; and I’ve visited Fontevraud Abbey, to which the widowed Eleanor retired and lived out her days. Eleanor, Henry, and Richard were buried there, and while their physical remains are gone now (since the French Revolution, one theory holds), the full-size stone sarcophagi are still on display.
The Plantagenet court, led by Henry and Eleanor, had a major impact on the arts of the day, in sculpture but more particularly in music and poetry. Years ago I studied styles of twelfth-century church carvings from England and France, trying to show that there was a connection fostered by the royal court (in the form of money from the wandering court).
So, back to Peter O’Toole. Maybe he’s my earliest imprint of an Irishman: talented, quick to speak and to anger; his own worst enemy. But no one could call the roles he took on dull or tame. He lit up the screen, and occasionally the stage; even when he was bad, he was larger than life. He will be missed.
Coming next month!