directed by Joshua Logan
(Warner Bros., 1967)

With its lavish sets, beautiful music and undeniable star quality, Camelot is a wonderful motion picture built upon the successful Lerner-Loewe Broadway musical, which in turn was based on T.H. White's The Once & Future King. It is in no way a definitive account of King Arthur's story, as it concentrates on the fateful lovers' triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.

I probably have a different take on the legendary romance of Arthur's two closest companions than most, for I look upon this story not as a love story at all, but a tragedy. Franco Nero is wonderful as Lancelot (despite the fact that Nero is Italian, not French), and Vanessa Redgrave makes for a most enchanting Queen Guinevere, but my opinion of these illicit lovers is set in stone and could hardly be pulled out even by the likes of Arthur. To me, Lancelot is one of the biggest cads in literature. Granted, he had no intention of falling in love with Guinevere, but his actions made a mockery of all his numerous, rather obnoxious claims to purity, nobility and chivalry. Chivalry does not start by betraying your king and closest friend to engage in an adulterous affair that could not but lead to disastrous consequences on an epic scale. This just goes to show how one lone Frenchman can bring about the ruin of the noblest of kingdoms.

I initially had a little trouble with Richard Harris as Arthur, as he certainly doesn't conform to my image of the legendary hero (my Arthur, for example, doesn't wear copious amounts of eye shadow), but his nobility and sense of purpose soon won me over. Still, I'm not overly fond of the film's characterization of the man, for it creates for us the image of a weak, ineffective ruler who shames himself over his unfaithful wife and basically allows his kingdom to fall into ruin all around him. I don't see many glimpses of "the future king" in this movie. It would not be right for me to describe this as a fault with the film, however; it's just part of the filmmakers' designs, as their intention was to show us Arthur the man rather than the mythic Arthur of legend.

This version of King Arthur is exceedingly human, and that makes for some powerful scenes, particularly his passionate soliloquies as he ponders the loss of everything he cares about. One cannot help but despair alongside Arthur as Camelot begins to crumble, particularly since, in this version of the tale, Merlin never warned him against marrying Guinevere. The one weak character in the film is Mordred (David Hemmings), who -- despite his late-arrived scheming -- seems almost tangential to the tragedy that unfolds.

While the film runs almost a full three hours, it never really succeeds in revealing the true magic of Camelot. The hopes and dreams of Arthur for his Round Table of noble knights dedicated to pursuing justice and right doesn't get enough emphasis, and his attempt to create a criminal justice system feels like little more than a plot device for Mordred to orchestrate his downfall. The loss of the Arthurian ideal is the true tragedy of this story, but too much of the film's emotion is dedicated to the illicit lovers, ignoring the fact that their sins would have basically pushed England into the Dark Ages.

It's a real shame that the musical has all but disappeared as a cinematic art form these days, as Camelot shows just how much depth and meaning an impassioned score and exquisite songs can add to a story. When you think of Camelot, you think of the characters and the story only after your mind replays such songs as the title theme and the award-winning love song "If Ever I Would Leave You."

The DVD's special features are good but not great. Alongside comparably short descriptions of important Arthurian topics, short bios and filmographies of prominent players in the drama and five different movie trailers, you get a 10-minute contemporary documentary about the filming of Camelot and a 30-minute look at the movie's opening (with Redgrave rather conspicuous in her absence).

by Daniel Jolley
30 September 2006

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