It is big, it is incredibly lavish, and it is long. It is also sometimes a little more comedic than it may mean to be, not quite dramatic as it might be, and of a particular moment in time despite taking place during another era. However, whatever Jack L. Warner’s 1967 musical Camelot may be, it has a truly fantastic score from Lerner and Loewe.
Directed by Joshua Logan (South Pacific) and starring Richard Harris as King Arthur, Vanessa Redgrave as Guenevere, and Franco Nero as Lancelot du Lac, Camelot is something of an overripe fruit, bursting at the seams. It is the classic tale told by T.H. White in The Once and Future King of the love triangle between the three main characters, but done on a grand scale. The sets are massive, the costumes are incredibly intricate, everyone’s emotions runneth over, and the singing hardly ever stops.
It is a three hour musical which feels closer to four, but as long as Harris or (to a lesser extent) Redgrave is singing, it is a joy to behold. It is generally when the singing stops that things fall apart. There is, generally speaking, more emotion that one can get away with without causing a snicker in the audience when things are being sung. Here, whether in song or in speech, Richard Harris is something of an emotional basket case and while musically it works, it doesn’t as much when he is simply speaking… especially speaking to himself.
This is clear from the beginning of the film, where Arthur finds himself outside Lancelot’s castle bemoaning his need to lay siege to the place. Arthur is quite the “woe is me” character from the outset and, perhaps, as the film is told as Arthur’s flashback from this moment, it is understandable that the film is rife with over-the-top sentiment, but it still (at least today) fails to draw in the audience. There is, in short, a theatricality to the film and performances which is, unfortunately, enhanced by some of the cavernous sets rather than toned down. It distances the viewer when it shouldn’t.
Additionally, Redgrave’s Guenevere feels very much a product of a different time (and not an Arthurian one) with her desire to have people maim, kill, and perform other horribly heroic (or terribly devious) deeds to express their love. We see this in no fewer than three of her songs “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “The Lusty Month of May,” and “Then You May Take me to the Fair.” Taken as a whole, these three songs paint her character as terribly unlikable – it may be Mordred (David Hemmings) who wants to destroy Arthur’s kingdom, but Guenevere’s actions are always going to cause a problem, whether or not Mordred is there to take advantage of the situation.
The one exception to this singing being better rule is Lancelot’s song “C’est Moi.” More than other songs, it is clear that Nero is not doing the singing here (Gene Merlino is given the credit), and it is one of those overly comedic moments in the film. The song is all about how Lancelot can do anything and everything and remains relatively humble at the same time. For those who haven’t seen Camelot, imagine Gaston’s self-titled song from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with lyrics just outlandish but played in a more straight manner. Between Guenevere’s attitude and Lancelot’s it is a wonder that Arthur can possibly stand either and that he doesn’t boot them both out of the kingdom and be done with it.
Whatever emotionally false notes the story has in this day and age, the music of Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe make up for it. The songs, from first to last, are wondrous. They, unlike the rest of the film, strike the perfect balance between drama and comedy. One will want to listen to them over and over again. Of course, to realize that it is the music that is the most worthwhile part of the film, one has to actually see the movie (simply hearing the soundtrack might confuse one into thinking the movie is better than it is)
Those songs, and in fact the entire production, is presented here beautifully. It isn’t terribly striking visually (the film is at times dark and often intentionally shot with soft focus), but it is clear that much effort has gone into cleaning up the print and offering up the best presentation possible, including eliminating dirt and scratches without losing grain. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, however, is really where things excel. As stated, the music is the reason to watch this movie and it sounds absolutely spectacular here. There are no crackles nor pops to speak of, and all the dialogue is clear and clean. And that music rings free and clear and loud and is simply incredible in its presentation.
In terms of extras, there is a commentary track from Stephen Farber (film critic), a booklet, a CD with four songs (just to whet your appetite), trailers, and a few featurettes. The first of these pieces combines real archeologists digging for the ruins of Camelot alongside making-of footage of the film. The second is a half-hour long TV presentation of the opening of the film in New York City. Not truly interesting for what it says about the movie itself, it is terribly interesting to watch the premiere unfold (including what seem to be the original commercials). There is also an excellent making-of piece which not only talks about the film and it’s production, but larger questions of what was happening with Warner Bros. at the time and the state of the film industry as a whole. It is an excellent history lesson and well worth one’s time.
Camelot is worth watching for the soundtrack alone. One may be amazed at the sets and costumes, but the story of Arthur has been told better elsewhere and on more than one occasion. No, the reason to watch isn’t the story, it is simply to hear Harris and Redgrave sing, and no one would fault you if you simply skipped from song to song to do just that.