by Alexandre Paquin
A musical with a setting, running time, and budget of an epic, but which never attempts to be one and spends its time on close-ups and below average singing. Richard Harris does his best to bring the mythical King Arthur to life, and is quite convincing, but Vanessa Redgrave is miscast as Guenevere, and Franco Nero... well... is Franco Nero. The songs and music are splendid, though.What usually happens when a Hollywood studio buys the rights to a surefire hit, gives the production a gigantic budget, and hires a bunch of old pros to "do their stuff" in order to bring the project to life?
"Everyone tries to sing in King Arthur's mythical realm... without success."
A financial disaster. Studio executives are so certain that when they have assembled the right elements, there is no way a film could be a failure. But as the rest of us know, unsinkable ships do not exist.
Why then, in spite of all the names attached to a production, can such a film be a failure? In some occasions this is due to greater expectations than usual, sometimes created by an over-zealous publicity department, because similar films were wildly popular , or because the people involved believed that quality could be achieved without the slightest effort. Whatever the reason for their failure, these cinematic behemoths founder without a trace until being lifted by video release or for the occasional television broadcasting, although some of these films do have their share of die-hard fans.
Warner Brothers's "Camelot" (1967) appeared at the time to be an excellent contender for one of the top box-office grossers of its year. After all, the medieval era was undergoing a revival in popularity in the mid- and late sixties, and what could be more medieval than the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? In fact, during the Academy Awards ceremony held earlier that year, the Renaissance-era political drama, "A Man for All Seasons", based on the execution of Sir Thomas More, was crowned the Best Picture of 1966. "Camelot", in turn, would win Oscars in minor categories, for best art direction-set decoration, best costume design and best music in the adaptation category, and would be nominated for best cinematography and best sound. But the film was not a box-office success, not even recuperating its eighteen million dollars' budget after its first release.
At the basis of the film was the hit Broadway musical "Camelot", originally written by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music), and based on T.H. White's "modern classic" "The Once and Future King", which is in turn based on Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century "Le Morte d'Arthur". The production's initial run was a success, opening in December 1960 and ending in January 1963, running for a total of 874 performances with Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Queen Guenevere, and Robert Goulet as Lancelot. Although Lerner and Loewe's partnership is lesser known than Rodgers and Hammerstein's, the former turned out a string of successes, both on film and on the stage. Two of their productions, the made-for-film "Gigi" (1958), later turned into a stage musical, and the film adaptation of their stage hit "My Fair Lady" (1964), won the Oscar for Best Picture. Lerner had also written the screenplay to another Best Picture winner, 1951's "An American in Paris". Given these credentials, it was only a matter of time before "Camelot" would be turned into a film, and that the adaptation would be granted a lavish budget.
As it turned out, a prestigious name was involved at every level of the production, starting with the legendary Jack L. Warner as the producer. To direct the film, Warner recruited Joshua Logan, a Broadway director who had later successfully turned to movies, most notably "Picnic" (1955), "Bus Stop" (1956), "Sayonara" (1957), and the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" (1958) (which Logan had also directed on the stage), garnering two Oscar nominations in the process (for "Picnic" and "Sayonara"). "Camelot" would turn out to be his penultimate assignment. The original librettist Alan Jay Lerner was hired to rewrite the screenplay, which would take advantage of the film medium. To adapt and conduct the music, Warner Brothers turned to long-time Twentieth Century-Fox composer Alfred Newman, and his assistant on previous occasions (including Logan's "South Pacific"), Ken Darby. Selected to play the part of King Arthur was Richard Harris, who was then best known for his portrayal of Frank Machin in the British film "This Sporting Life" (1963), which earned him an Oscar nomination. Red-headed Vanessa Redgrave, the daughter of renowned film star Sir Michael Redgrave, would be cast as King Arthur's wife Guenevere, and Franco Nero, at the time only known in his home country of Italy, would be introduced to English-speaking audiences as Sir Lancelot du Lac, the French champion, and later lover, of the Queen.
The plot of "Camelot" is in fact an extended flashback, starting with Arthur, about to fight a costly war, wondering how he had blundered into this situation. Encouraged by his mentor, the magician Merlin (Laurence Naismith) to "think back", he remembers the day when he first met Guenevere, in what seemed to be an arranged marriage. We are not subjected to the classic episode of the young Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone and other events taking place in King Arthur's youth for the simple reason that Disney owned the rights to the first of the four parts of which "The Once and Future King" was comprised when the stage musical was being written. Disney later used it to produce the animation film "The Sword in the Stone" in 1963. The omission of Arthur's youth could have had a negative impact on "Camelot", but it did not, as the Arthurian legends are well-known, and therefore did not require this to be included in order to understand the story.
The arranged marriage between Arthur and Guenevere turns out to be a successful one, that is, until the bold French knight Sir Lancelot, attracted by the creation of the order of the Round Table, arrives at the court with the hope of becoming the King's champion. Lancelot is a man with impressive battle skills but with an equally impressive self-esteem, and Guenevere is turned off by his arrogant attitude. However, when Lancelot miraculously saves the life of a fellow knight after a joust, Guenevere gradually falls in love with Lancelot, and the latter finds out that he is more worldly than he would want to, as he also falls in love with Guenevere.
Just before the knighting of Lancelot, Arthur suspects a relationship between him and Guenevere --suggested by close-ups of Guenevere, Lancelot, and Arthur, in that order -- but he carries on with the knighting. Indeed, Arthur's ambition is to transform Camelot into a model of "civilization", where might is used for right, and with a fair judicial system. Therefore, personal vengeance against the lovers would appear "uncivilized" and contrary to the idealistic purpose of Camelot. Shortly afterwards, Arthur's illegitimate child Mordred (David Hemmings) shows up at the court, with the purpose of destroying the order of the Round Table and establishing himself on the throne. Mordred attempts to surprise Lancelot and Guenevere together while the King is away, to force the matter to be brought up in Arthur's fair court. Mordred succeeds in finding the lovers together, and succeeds in arresting Guenevere, but Lancelot manages to escape.
Found guilty of treason, Guenevere is condemned to be burned at the stake, but Lancelot comes to the rescue and escapes with her. Accompanying Lancelot, however, were several former Knights of the Round Table who had been convinced to revolt by Mordred. Arthur, seeing his ideals being disintegrated before his eyes, must oblige his knights who want to pursue the attackers for revenge. Just as he is about to fight Mordred in a battle to begin at dawn, Arthur meets with Lancelot, who plans to return to his castle of Joyous Gard, and Guenevere, who has decided to become a nun. Before engaging into battle, Arthur knights a young boy, Sir Tom of Warwick, and gives him the task to perpetuate the tales of the good King and of his Round Table. The reference is to Sir Thomas Malory, author of "Le Morte d'Arthur", suggesting that the young boy would become the author of one of the most famous English-language renditions of the Arthurian tales.
This rather simple plot, in fact an extended love triangle with some political intrigue and a few lines of ideology along the way, lasts an overwhelming three hours, which include, true to the original stage musical, an overture, intermission music, and exit music. The screenplay, by the same hand as the stage musical's libretto, is generally faithful to the original source, although at least one song by Mordred was omitted. Several events which could not have been created on the stage have been added, most notably the jousting sequence, but it was the music which underwent the most changes, as the orchestration was substantially modified by Newman and Darby. Nevertheless, the result is overlong, and the pace is unbelievably slow, with lazy direction, actors who overact and undersing, and artificial-looking sets and costumes which utterly fail to create a sense of time and place.
It would be normal for the director of a low budget film to spend most of the footage on close-ups of the protagonists because he would have little else of interest to show. However, when at the helm of a widescreen superproduction boasting lavish sets, close-ups are the worst approach a director could use. Both during songs and dialogue, the unimaginative use of close-ups mars the entire film, refusing to take advantage of the sets. We would have liked to see more of the scenery and the costumes, produced at great expense, and less of the stars' faces. Of course, close-ups were used to make us care about the characters rather than about the medieval setting, but too much is still too much, especially with a film this long. Director Joshua Logan seemed less interested in innovative camera work than in the characters and the performances, thus explaining the approach, encouraged by the unexciting screenplay, which completely excludes what audiences usually expect of a medieval film, namely pageantry, knights in armour, quests of epic proportions, and warfare, to settle on a love triangle set in good old Camelot. No doubt that part of the audience was bound to be disappointed.
People, after all, had been bred on Arthurian legends for centuries, with adaptations ranging from Malory in the fifteenth century to White in the mid-twentieth, and countless other versions in between, and because the topic is very familiar, people know what must be included in a film on a film on Arthur and his Knights. They expect the well-known quest for the Holy Grail to take place, but there is not a single trace of it in the entire three hours of film. The character of Mordred, who should be a staple in every film based on Arthurian legends, only appears when audiences are already two hours into the film, and his role is limited to creating tension that would have erupted anyway because of the relationship between Lancelot and Guenevere. Had he been absent, the film would not have suffered much, and in fact could have been even better. Nevertheless, the idea of emphasizing the love triangle is not necessarily a bad one. Considering the topic, it is in fact quite refreshing to have a story in which the Knights of the Round Table do not spend half the film looking for the Holy Grail. "Camelot" has a truly intimate feeling to it that most films on this topic fail to exploit, but did this intimate feeling deserve a three-hour treatment and the budget it received? By no means. The final pace is terribly slow, with short patches of excitement, for example a candle-lit wedding, the jousting tournament (very brief), the knighting of Lancelot (including a glimpse of the appropriate pageantry, which never quite occurs again), Arthur's dilemma and his speech on being "civilized", with the first act's final shot, accompanied by stirring music, zooming out of Arthur to reveal the Round Table, with all knights gathering around it, the rescue of Guenevere, and the sentimental ending.
In selecting the stars of the film, Logan also made the mistake of choosing leads who could not sing, although everyone certainly makes the effort. Logan could have had the actors dubbed in post-production, but chose to keep their singing to give the picture a more "natural" sound. And it's not Mario Lanza we're dealing with here. Richard Harris does his best interpreting the songs of King Arthur, and generally succeeds, and his success in the part incited him to embark upon a singing career, including the role of Arthur in the stage musical's revival, which turned out to be fairly successful. Vanessa Redgrave also did her best, but her interpretation of the songs was generally weaker because of the occasional lack of voice, distorted sense of timing and some particularly nasal notes. As for Franco Nero, his singing and part of his lines had to dubbed by one Gene Merlino because of Nero's thick accent, but the overall effect is that Lancelot still sounds more Italian than French, with some good singing along the way. Because of average singing by all concerned, the music is more memorable than any of the songs (except perhaps Harris's, particularly his rendition of the title song), and is in fact the chief asset of the picture.
Regarding acting, sadly, most of the actors involved in the production have a tendency to overact, for example Harris in the most poignant moments of the film -- for instance the speech on being civilized at the end of the first act, or the finale as King Arthur is about to engage in battle -- or Vanessa Redgrave here and there throughout the film. Franco Nero's casting was a mistake, as his poor English leads him to talk slowly, and he does not seem to know how to sound realistic in English. In spite of his good looks, he looks completely out of place in this production, and even physically, his performance looks exaggerated. David Hemmings is completely wasted as Mordred, and other performances that could have been interesting are kept to a minimum. Lionel Jeffries provides comic relief as King Pellinore, but unfortunately, the dark tone of the picture, dealing with the destruction of chivalrous ideals, does not incorporate his character well. But by far, Harris is the driving force behind the film. And in spite of the performances, ranging from over-ripe to downright awful, audiences can believe in the possibility of romance between Arthur and Guenevere, and between Lancelot and Guenevere. It is worth mentioning that Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero got involved in a much-publicized off-screen romance during and following the completion of the picture. Redgrave had been granted divorce in 1967 when she accused her husband, director Tony Richardson, of adultery, and in 1969, a son was born out of her union with Nero.
The saga of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is set by scholars in the late fifth or early sixth century. Yet the castle, costumes, and armours seem much too recent to date back to this period. The castle's architecture, for instance, would have been little more than a hapazardly put together mass of rocks, and the armours of our protagonists would not have been intricately chiselled as they are in the film. Most of the designs date to a later period of the Middle Ages and to the Renaissance. Therefore, much of "Camelot"'s costume design and set decoration, by John Truscott and Edward Carrere, are anachronistic and inappropriate. Please note, however, that it is far from being the only film to which this applies. Some other sets look completely artificial, most notably the forest covered with snow early in the film, and yet -- this film won an Academy Award in precisely this category! The people, furthermore, would not have been merry as they are in the film, dancing around during the song "The Lusty Month of May" or celebrating in a carnival before the jousting tournament (also an anachronism) that would never have taken place in fifth-century England. No doubt this was the inspiration for a spoof in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975).
In spite of all its shortcomings, "Camelot" tries to include an ideological message beneath the setting of the Arthurian legends. Traditionally, the Middle Ages have been portrayed in two ways in literature and film. First, there was the romantic approach, with chivalrous knights in armour, dashing heroes, damsels in distress, friendly tournaments, and tyrannical rulers waiting to be overthrown, which was usually applied to the Arthurian legends and anything related to Robin Hood. Second -- and this approach is more recent -- there is a more realistic treatment of the era, depicting a class-conscious society, starving peasants, greedy and ambitious lords, knights killing each other in bloody warfare, wealthy men of the cloth, and a widespread lack of hygiene. As it turns out, still very few people are interested in knowing what a medieval toilet looked like, but the recent popularity of the second category -- unfortunately mostly limited to scholars -- gives us reason to hope that cracks have begun to appear through the veneer of the picture-perfect medieval era, to reveal what was really happening in that period.
While "Camelot" clearly belongs to the first, and most common, category, it manages to include a political message which is deeper than it seems. The traditional film from the first approach would have simplified politics to the point of making the political struggle between good and evil. When Robin Hood used to fight the good old Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John, there was no question as to whom was good and who was evil. You knew that Robin Hood was good, that the Sheriff was evil, and that good would triumph in the end. The political language in "Camelot", on the other hand, is much more rooted in semantics, as the important words here are "right" and "civilized". All the postmodernists out there would be having a field day debating the meaning of these two words, reminding all of us from the hoi polloi how subjective these terms are. "Right" and "good" are not necessarily synonymous, as the word "right" implies a moral conscience which is not present in the word "good". As for the word "civilized", it is an extremely relative term which has a set of social values attached to it. King Arthur's realm is "civilized" because it is "right", as opposed to being "good". What Arthur claims to be "right" are values such as compassion, justice, and fairness, in comparison to the brutal, selfish attitudes of the time. The epitome of "civilization" happens to be the Round Table, where everyone sits equal to the next person, where actions are debated rather than enforced.
Today, the <i>Camelot</i> stage musical is forever associated with the American President who was elected a month before its Broadway debut and ten months away from his violent demise when its initial run concluded. But in retrospect, it seems that the <i>Camelot</i> myth that grew around the Kennedy presidency was carefully constructed by his widow and others (including Robert Kennedy) immediately after his assassination. It was therefore not while he was alive that the connections were made, only after his death. It is unfortunate that his administration has not been subjected to revisionism of Nixonian magnitude (except by Seymour Hersh), partly because of the patina the Kennedy years in the White House retain to this day. A better allegory could not have been made by those who wanted to shape what posterity would remember of the 35th U.S. President -- Kennedy's strong will and apparent message of tolerance fitted perfectly with King Arthur's hopes for universal peace and "civilization". However, when T.H. White started publishing the parts of what would become "The Once and Future King" in the late 1930's, the international situation was rapidly deteriorating under the possibility of war with Hitler's Germany. T.H. White, a staunch pacifist, used the Arthurian legends as a parable for the events of the time. The most obvious equivalent of the Round Table was the League of Nations, which was dismantled with the outbreak of the Second World War, and the United Nations, created immediately after the war. In "Camelot", the Round Table is eventually destroyed because of internal factions and selfish attitudes, and King Arthur must witness the death of his ideal when his own knights, who had earlier shared this ideal with him, demand revenge against their oppressors. The Arthurian ideal proved no match for human nature, as it would be the case again and again throughout history. Even today, as the entire world is hoping for universal peace, the actions of a single man and those who follow him are enough to destabilize this utopian ideal. In the end, "Camelot" reaches the opposite conclusion that White had hoped for. Because human nature cannot be changed, conflicts of interest will exist as long as the human race does, and war is therefore inevitable.
If one needed to find a particular culprit in the film, to bear the blame for the destruction of King Arthur's ideals, most people would point a finger at Queen Guenevere herself. Arthur is after all the righteous man with an ideal of "civilization", and Lancelot deplores his own lack of self-restraint regarding his love for the Queen. Guenevere, on the other hand, is depicted as an ambitious, manipulative, and deceitful woman, a fact which is not helped by the casting of Vanessa Redgrave, who gives the part a clear sexual edge. The musical numbers which she is given to sing include "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood", the innuendo-filled "The Lusty Month of May", and "Then You May Take Me to the Fair", in which she manipulates other knights to defeat Lancelot in the upcoming tournament. Because of the implicit sexuality involved in Redgrave's portrayal of Guenevere, her grief in the final hour of the picture and her decision to enter the convent come through as shallow, contrived, and completely unbelievable. In comparison, Arthur is shown as respectful to his wife when he declares that the best way to handle a woman is to love her -- and he is credible, as this fits well with the rest of his ideals. As Guenevere is the only significant female character in the entire film, one could argue that the picture is misogynistic in the way it is constructed. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the Arthurian ideal is destroyed by human nature, as it is the guilty relationship between Guenevere and Lancelot which ultimately brings it down.
The human conflict is in "Camelot" at the centre of the demise of King Arthur's Utopian ideal, the Round Table, and because of this, the Arthurian legends are presented here under an interesting angle. Although the film manages to discuss the question of "civilization", which most films of its type would have left aside, this reviewer cannot recommend it, simply, as plainly put as possible, because it is dull and boring, mostly because of the handling. It lasts for three hours and gives the impression that nothing happened during that time. Even though Richard Harris is appealing as King Arthur, Director Joshua Logan's constant use of close-ups at the expense of the sets and costumes is deplorable, there is no sense of the Middle Ages in the picture, the singing is below par, and Franco Nero makes it his duty to kill what's left of what could have been a decent film.One hour into the film, Guenevere declares that she has "never found chivalry tedious... so far". So far indeed.
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originally posted: 01/07/02 02:25:42