Back in the 1960s, it seemed almost a statute that every successful Broadway musical had to be awarded a lavish film version. Joshua Logan, a seasoned hand in directing cumbersome projects on stage, had dabbled in filmmaking in the 1930s but migrated to Hollywood more successfully to bring Mister Roberts (1955) to the screen, after John Ford’s infamous altercations with star Henry Fonda. Logan prospered with more stage-to-screen transfers including the successful Picnic (1955) and the sadly weak movie adaptation of South Pacific (1958), which he had helped create on stage. Logan’s last two films as director, Camelot and Paint Your Wagon (1969), were both expensive musicals based on beloved properties by storied creative team Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. Both films underperformed, particularly the latter, as the hunger for these prestigious and universally accessible beasts waned dramatically. It’s easy to see why Paint Your Wagon, a scallywag epic about a ménage-a-trois in the old west that tried to graft a little hippie-era mischief onto old-fashioned, full-throated paeans to Americana, finds little love. Camelot seems on paper to have a lot going for it, including a glossy production, a solid basis in T.H. White’s beloved take on the Arthurian legends, The Once and Future King, and a perennially popular score. Several of its regularly cited faults, like leads who can’t sing, staginess, and a certain ponderousness of pace, are pretty common in the genre.
Moreover, Logan's production team brought a lustre to the piece that anticipates and perhaps influenced John Boorman’s fantastical take on the same stories in Excalibur (1981) and Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, the set design and costuming creating a realm at once historical and out of time, a dreamtime take on medieval manners and mores. From the tufts of Guenevere’s white-fur robe dancing amidst fairy-tale snows, dark, twisting studio trees, and clingy morning mists, to the glittering metal armour and Celts-gone-art-deco motifs decorating Camelot, and a wedding sequence staged in a black space filled with guttering candles, the film builds a lovely mystique, crying out for a vigorous, swooningly romantic tale to inhabit it. But Camelot is beset by peculiar hesitations, including a screenplay that takes clumsy approach to turning the actual fantasy at the heart of the story into a variety of thought-power guff. Camelot looks heavenly but remains resolutely earthbound, excising any sign of literal magic and Merlyn (Laurence Naismith) only occasionally pokes his nose in as a memory retained in Arthur’s head. This material approach wasn't necessarily a great problem, but along with Merlyn went much of what little story the musical had. What’s left focuses, inevitably, on King Arthur’s (Richard Harris) romance with Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave) and the subsequent tragic triangle with Lancelot (Franco Nero) as third corner.
Some essence of Loewe’s transcription of White’s semi-satiric but pervasively melancholic take on the Arthurian tales is retained, presenting Arthur as a thoughtful leader all too aware, thanks to Merlyn’s odd upbringing for the future leader as a scruffy dogsbody who knows how the world works, of how frail the thread of civilisation’s sustaining mythologies are even as he tries to invent some. White’s version of the mythology presented it through the lens of post-war soul-searching, and the stage production of Camelot became entwined with the mystique of the Kennedy administration. Just why can still be made out, as Arthur struggles to lay down the rules for a new age and a new way of handling civic problems, with a sophisticated, even philosophical approach, albeit one that soon faces calamitous testing by circumstance and the blind spots in Arthur’s limpid idealism, and his ultimate inability to entirely leash and channel the bellicosity of his supposedly noble and protecting corps of knights. Harris’ lead performance is excellent, capturing the spirit of a poet-king with more idealism than sense but also wielding the peculiar kind of courage required to test his ideals to the bitter end in the face of betrayal and breakdown. Harris didn’t have a particularly great voice, but enough craft and sense of melodiousness to wield the one he had like an épée compared to the stentorian brass of Richard Burton’s stage version, and it suits a character as quixotic as this Arthur.
But Redgrave makes Harris sound like Enrico Caruso as a singer, whilst Nero was dubbed altogether (by Gene Merlino). Nero certainly has the right physical presence for the part, but looks throughout a little like he’s been slapped with a fish, conveying romantic torture by wincing his dreamy blue eyes a little: by the end he only ever seems as annoyingly one-dimensional as Guenevere finds him at the start. Redgrave, one of the most penetrating but restrained of performers, was at her youthful loveliest in the role, and her role suggests Logan had the idea of stretching her tantalisingly brief appearance as Anne Boleyn in A Man for All Seasons (1966) to feature length. She’s customarily good, and yet her sharp-eyed intelligence and air of emotional intensity sits ever so slightly at odds with her character, as she never seems the type to be as driven by emotions, and general wayward eroticism, as Lerner’s Guenevere seems. When she’s winsomely arranging for a cohort of knights to butcher Lancelot because his ego annoys her, she comes across as vaguely psychopathic instead of charmingly infuriated. The score is enjoyable and there are probably theatre geeks out there who love all the songs, but I find most of them pleasantly forgettable. Only the title song really lodges residence of any tenure in the ear. Plus, over the course of this three hour movie, it’s almost easy to forget you’re actually watching a musical: several songs were excised, whilst Lerner’s original book was rightly criticised for translating too few of its concerns and motifs into song and leaning instead on speechifying, and this fault was transferred intact.
By the time something resembling a plot, in the shape of David Hemmings as Mordred, waltzes into the throne room, nearly two-thirds of the film have passed and even then it barely registers. As a whole the film feels like the neatest possible example of a common problem with filmed musicals from this period: with the accent on reconvening set-piece sequences and a rigid act structure onto the screen, many of the resulting films had to rush in winding up their plots (e.g. Oliver!’s weak final concatenation of about half of Oliver Twist’s plot into the last half-hour after all the jigging and hokey-pokying). Only here there really aren’t any set-pieces of note – no song and dance numbers of expanse, no climaxes apart from a sequence in which Lancelot saves Guenevere from punitive judgement which doesn’t quite make the leap from supposed to actual drama. The “The Lusty Month of May” sequence comes closest to a strong blend of overripe pastoral bawdiness and song, whereas Logan’s attempts to enliven “C’est Moi” and “Take Me to the Fair” with vaguely cool jump-cutting just feel lead-footed. When directing Bus Stop (1956) Logan had wrestled with the problem of delivering traditional close-ups in the context of widescreen frames and emerged with some credit. But here his direction seems to consist almost entirely of leaps between jarring close shots and spacious, highly theatrical long shots.
The film’s best moment is actually the most serious, right at the very heart, dramatically and lengthwise, when Lancelot fatally wounds an opponent set against him in a joust by Guenevere’s scheming. The great knight manages to bring his opponent back to life thanks to the mystical power he’s accumulated in his pure lifestyle. Logan conveys the drama via momentous visions of the actors’ intense emotions, and captures something all but ethereal, the sigh of metaphysical love converting into transfiguring, transgressive mortal love, as Guenevere is confronted by the truth of Lancelot’s character and the arc of inescapable feeling between her and the knight, whilst everyone else is privy merely to a miracle. In sharpest possible contrast, Hemmings wears sly, witty ignobility like chain mail, and his contentious exchanges with Harris almost succeed in galvanising the film's lurching series of vignettes into something like a story. Mordred offers a voice of cutting dissent to Arthur’s airy ideas and cultivated ignorances, like some ball of black, scruffy beatnik sarcasm dropped into a dish of mother’s milk: he in turn brings out the playfully aggressive side in Harris. Lionel Jeffries is also fun as the ditzy, exiled King Pellinore, who strays out of the forest looking for his kingdom, the name of which he can’t remember, and cautions Arthur that he’s against his ideas - that is, all of them, being against anything new on principle. Just enough such flecks of Lerner’s wit brighten the film so that, in spite of its unwieldiness and lack of drive, it manages to count as a few hours spent in pleasant detachment from reality and its cares.