I wonder what Chief Justice Michael Stailey is doing tonight...
"Arise, Sir Lancelot…"
So that I may lop off your miscast Italian head.
Facts of the Case
On the eve of battle, King Arthur Pendragon (Sir Richard Harris, The Field) reflects back on the life and decisions which brought him to this precipice. It all began one faithful night, not so very long ago. Awaiting the arrival of his heretofore unseen betrothed, Lady Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave, Julia), Arthur—or Wart, as he likes to be called—falls out of a tree and into the life of Jenny, a young woman running away from her royal obligations. As you might guess, Wart and Jenny strike up an instant kinship, neither knowing who the other truly is. That reveal lays the groundwork for their marriage, though romance never truly enters into the equation. Theirs is a partnership based on friendship, trust, and mutual respect. But those virtues only career a couple so far, when matters of the heart are involved. Enter Lancelot du Lac (Franco Nero, Die Hard 2), a noble French warrior determined to join King Arthur's crusade as a knight of the Round Table. So determined, in fact, he almost slays the king in battle without realizing who he's attacking. The two immediately bond as brothers, a relationship on par with his marriage, forming a love triangle that can only end in heartbreak and despair…which it does.
T.H. White's novel The One and Future King remains one of my favorite books of all time, having revisited it several times since my first read at the age of 13. Of course, this was after having seen a stage production of Camelot, Monty Python and the Holy Grail on TV in the late '70s, and before the theatrical re-release of Walt Disney's The Sword in the Stone in 1983. Needless to say, I had a serious Arthurian fixation.
One would therefore assume that I hold Jack Warner and Josh Logan's extravagant film adaptation in equally high regard. Au contraire, mon frère. I have given this version of Camelot ample opportunity to win my affections, only to be smote each and every time.
Why, you might ask? For several key reasons…
Woefully Miscast Leads—Even after 873 performances and four Tony Awards, none of the original 1960 Broadway cast chose to be involved in the film. At age 42, having just been Oscar nominated for Who's Afraid of Virigina Woolf?, Richard Burton was considered too old by Jack Warner, who wanted an actor that would speak to a new generation of movie goers. Julie Andrews, who was turned down for the film role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady because Warner felt she would never become a star, had done just that with Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. And Robert Goulet…well, he became the lounge singing icon Robert Goulet. Richard Harris lobbied hard for the role and his casting makes sense. This tall, handsome, thirty-something bad boy was well on his way to cinematic stardom. Unfortunately, he could sing worth a crap and insisted on doing all of his numbers live to camera instead of lip-synching to track (a Hollywood tradition). His performance as Arthur is mesmerizing to watch, if only because it's so affected. I can only imagine how intense his Meisner-esque preparations were for each scene. The always stunning Vanessa Redgrave gives a more nuanced performance as Guenevere, wearing her emotions on her sleeve and knowingly train wrecking into an ill-conceived romance with Lancelot. The worst of the lot is Franco Nero, Redgrave's real-life romantic partner. This bombastic Italian (playing a Frenchman, right?) overacts every scene, making Harris look tame by comparison. And his vocals were so awful the studio employed singer Gene Merlino to pre-record Lancelot's musical numbers (not an unusual decision in those days). Together, they form a dysfunctional triad so strange you almost can't look away, unless you fall asleep which is bound to happen.
Josh Logan's Direction—As Hollywood has proven time and again, what works in one medium rarely translates easily to another. When it comes to musicals, I can only think of two that made near seamless transitions from stage to screen—The Music Man and 1776—both of which were taken lock, stock, and barrel from their final Broadway performance and put right in front of the camera, using the same cast, director, and production team. Alan Lerner's stage version of Camelot unfolds in a compelling manner, using Frederick Loewe's music to punctuate the drama and amp the emotion. But where Moss Hart kept his stage direction tight and intimate, director Josh Logan (South Pacific) goes vast in size and scope, dwarfing his cast with massive sets, sweeping location shots, and indulging Lerner's bloated screenplay with long drawn out philosophical conversations that bore the audience into not caring. The vibe is reminiscent of director Franco Zeffirelli but not nearly as effective.
Story Changes—By turning the film into an extended flashback, Lerner establishes a heavy somber tone that seeps into nearly every aspect of the narrative. Everywhere we go and everything we see is tinged with sadness, as if Arthur's depression is smothering the light from his own memories. His time with Merlin, a great source of joy in the book and the Disney film, feels like a deathbed monologue. The lovers tryst between Lance and Jenny and the song "If Ever I Would Leave You," which always played up the thrill of romance despite its adulterous nature, here feels burdened with guilt and despair. And by moving "What Do The Simple Folk Do?" from early in their relationship where everything was a bright new discovery to the thickest part of Arthur's adamant denial of the affair, the song becomes a downward spiraling dirge illustrating the death of their marriage. Without those joyous levels, the final act becomes even more despondent and cannot possibly be saved by Arthur's redemptive conversation with the young would-be knight. By that point, we and the film are beyond salvation.
Jack Warner's Runaway Production Value—There's a reason Warner self-destructed at the end of his career. He lost control of his artists. Camelot was spending money like there was no tomorrow. Simply let your eye wander over every inch of the frame and you'll discover an astounding level of detail. They built an actual castle on the backlot, imported the knights' armor from Spain, handmade hundreds of costumes from all natural materials individually dyed and painstakingly adorned to fit John Truscott's overall production design. If you're looking for a text book case of old Hollywood studio excess, this is it. In fact, the film was so out of control, Warner pulled the plug on the production with two weeks left to shoot. Logan had to scramble to get the shots he needed to finish the story he wanted to tell.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p high definition widescreen, one cannot argue with the magnificent Cinemascope imagery about to befall your very eyes. The sweeping landscapes and the artisan craftsmanship of everyone involved are on full display. While some interior sets are more realistic than others (e.g. the castle chambers more so than the snow drenched opening sequence), and the natural lighting scenes bring out more depth and clarity in the image than the filmic grain found in the seemingly pervasive darkness, this is another fine remastering effort by Warner Bros. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix makes great use of Camelot's musical numbers and even more surprising use of the surrounds. There are atmospherics here I never knew existed before. More of Frederick Lowes' expanded underscore can be heard and appreciated during the Overture, Entr'acte, and Exit Music, and it is orchestrally lush.
In terms of bonus features, this DigiBook edition offers up a bit more than then standard Blu-ray, but not much. Gauge your purchasing decision accordingly.
• Commentary—Film critic and historian Stephen Farber delivers a interesting look at the production, though I wouldn't call it required listening. I would have much preferred hearing Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero wax philosophic about the production and working with their colleagues, many of whom have long since passed.
• Camelot: Falling Kingdoms (30 min) *—This half hour retrospective ties the end of the studio system, the death of the movie musical, the demise of Jack Warner, and the Kennedy Administration (of all things) into a neat little package. Fans of the stage show will get a much clearer story of how the film came to be, and the misfortunes it befell along the way.
• The World Premiere (30 min)—A nostalgic look at the film's premiere and a reminder of how Hollywood used to be. It's a bit long in the tooth, but an interesting watch nonetheless.
• The Story of Camelot (10 min)—A vintage Warner Bros. promotional piece detailing the forthcoming theatrical release, loaded with studio hope and promise. So much for that idea.
• Trailer Gallery—Five vintage theatrical trailers, again informing us how far movie marketing has come over the last 45 years.
• Booklet *—This 36-page mini-keepsake sports liner notes on the cast, crew, and film's history, as well as a collection of production photos and promotional artwork.
• CD Sampler *—A four track EP of songs from the original motion picture soundtrack ("I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight," "Camelot and the Wedding Ceremony," "How to Handle a Woman," and "If Ever I Would Leave You / Love Montage") which does not hold a candle to the original Broadway cast recording.
* Features exclusive to the DigiBook release.
If you want a master class on how to suck the life out of the great American musical, you've come to the right place. The most compelling films deftly explore a variety of emotional levels to explore their characters and engage their audience. Camelot starts out mildly depressed and ends up suicidal. Thank god for the inclusion of Lionel Jeffries (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) as King Pelinore and David Hemmings (Barbarella) as Mordred, for their light and humor shines brightest in this otherwise cinematic darkness.
In short, there's simply not.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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