The most surprising thing about Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical Camelot is that it’s really the only musical based on the Arthurian tales we’ve got — that is if you discount Bing Crosby’s A Connecticut Yankee and King Arthur’s Court and the horrible animated film Quest for Camelot — which is odd considering that the epic pageantry of those legends seems like perfect settings for broad musical numbers. Based on T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, the musical Camelot focuses most of its three-hour run-time on the romantic entanglements of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, instead of the epic adventures of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This was probably not the best idea.
The film has an interesting structure as it begins with King Arthur (Richard Harris) preparing for battle against his long-time friend Lancelot Du Lac (Franco Nero), but when the movie eventually reaches its conclusion, we don’t get to see that battle. The film ends with Arthur stating, “I have won my battle, here is my victory. What we did here will be remembered, you’ll see.” One has to admit that it is a unique storytelling angle, if not completely satisfying, but we also have the three hours of movie that takes place between those two moments. So there’s that. It’s while waiting for this particular battle to begin that we find Arthur reflecting on the sad circumstances which had led him to this situation, and he asks his childhood mentor, Merlyn (Laurence Naismith), for advice, but as Merlyn has been missing for years — something to do with living backwards through time — his advice is simply, “Think back.” This leads us into the film’s more structured narrative as we get Arthur “looking back” at his first meeting and then betrothal to Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave) and the decision to form the Round Table under the ideals of “Might serves right, not might makes right.” This leads to Lancelot arriving in England to join Arthur in this noble venture.
As musicals go, I’ve sat through worse, but none of the songs of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe really resonated with me — there are a dozen songs and some seem to go on for an interminable length of time — and Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave aren’t terrible singers, though they both tend to utilize the “Speaking Singing” technique that Rex Harrison developed for My Fair Lady. The songs support the story, giving us emotional insights into the characters and their goals, but as the age-old love triangle is nothing new, I found myself thinking, “Get on with it!” during some of the numbers.
• I would have loved to have seen this movie with the original stage cast: Julie Andrews as Guinevere and Richard Burton as Arthur. Sadly, both actors declined to participate.
• The character of Morgan le Fay was featured in the Broadway version, but in this movie adaptation, she has sadly been excised.
• Arthur has his message of collecting knights for a “Round Table” delivered all over the kingdom, but why such parchment is wasted on all the commoners is beyond me. It’s not like a peasant is going to get a seat at the table, so why hand them invitations?
• King Arthur has a “Meet Cute” with both Guinevere and Lancelot.
• The character of King Pellinore, as portrayed by Lionel Jeffries, bears a remarkable resemblance to the White Knight from Lewis Carol’s Through the Looking Glass.
• Merlin does make an appearance in this movie, but he’s treated mostly like an extended cameo.
One could almost consider Camelot to be a sequel to the Disney animated film The Sword in the Stone as both films are based on T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, but where the Disney film dealt with Arthur as a young boy, ending with him pulling the sword from the stone, this film foregoes all this and begins years later with Arthur forming the Round Table, while stories of pulling Excalibur free and being taught by Merlin we only hear about in passing.
Aside from the drama of the ill-fated romance between Lancelot and Guinevere, we also have the arrival of Arthur’s bastard son Mordred (David Hemmings), who is allowed to join the Knights of the Round Table for fairly contrived reasons, and he spends most of his brief screen-time fermenting rebellion amongst the knights, which is not at all that helpful to the narrative as he doesn’t arrive until about the two-hour mark.
When the movie finally ended, I was left asking, “Where’s the search for the Holy Grail? What about the Green Knight or Morgan le Fay?” Sadly, I was left with no satisfactory answers. I’m sure fans of Camelot will point out the ornate sets and the visually beautiful staging of such a lavish production that makes this a classic, and you will get no argument from me there, as the sets and locations looked damn impressive, but at a three-hour run-time, it needed more than a tepid romance between two beautiful people and Richard Harris to hold itself together.
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
I’m all for a musical about the lives of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot I just wish we had gotten one that didn’t do its best to bore me to tears.