(Ed’s Note: I originally wrote this review in 2007.)
Camelot – 4 Stars (Excellent)
“Camelot” is a wonderful Broadway musical that garnered Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Music, and Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. It other words, Camelot was a superb technical triumph in its day.
Camelot also won Golden Globes for Richard Harris for Best Actor (as King Arthur), Frederick Loewe for Best Original Score, and both Frederick Loewe (music) and Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) for Best Original Song “If Ever I Should Leave You”.
Golden Globe nominations also went to Camelot for Best Picture, to Vanessa Redgrave for Best Actress (as Guenevere) and to Franco Nero for the Most Promising Newcomer (as Lancelot Du Lac).
The cast was superb and included David Hemmings (as Mordred, who looked as slimy and cunning as possible), Lionel Jeffries (as King Pellinore) and Laurence Naismith (as Merlyn, the Magician).
Joshua Logan directed this film like a beautiful flower coming into blossom where it is planted only to be destroyed by fire.
Camelot, released in 1967, celebrates its 40th anniversary this October, and was based on the 1960 musical play Camelot written by Alan Jay Lerner with music by Frederic Loewe.
The play was based on the King Arthur legend as adapted from the T. H. White novel “The Once and Future King” and ran on Broadway for 873 performances. To say the least, it was well received.
The original cast for the play included Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Queen Guenevere, Robert Goulet as Sir Lancelot, Roddy McDowell as Mordred, Robert Coote as King Pellinore and David Hurst as Merlyn with Moss Hart as the Director.
Camelot became a modern day legend when it was immortalized—after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963—by revealing that the show’s original cast recording had been the favorite bedtime listening in the White House. Kennedy’s favorite lines were in the final number (when King Arthur knights a young boy and tells him to pass on the story of Camelot to future generations):
Don’t let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
Since then, Camelot has been associated with the Kennedy administration, and the glory and the tragedy of the Kennedy family. Kennedy was the youngest elected President, the first Roman Catholic President, and the youngest President to die.
The following synopsis of Camelot from wikipedia.com is important in setting the stage for what I am about to reveal to you (the songs to accompany the scene are in parentheses):
“Guenevere arrives in Camelot on a wintry morning to marry King Arthur (of England) and is greeted festively by the Court. Arthur, shy and nervous, hides in the nearby woods (“I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?”).
“Guenevere comes to the woods, uncertain about herself and her future (“The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”). She stumbles into Arthur, who tells her about life in Camelot (“Camelot”), and then discloses his identity. They are each happily charmed by the other.
“Arthur learns from Merlyn the wisdom of peace and brotherhood, and is inspired to establish the Round Table. The news of this reaches young Lancelot in France, who is determined to come to Camelot and join Arthur’s knights (“C’est Moi”).
“A May Day celebration takes place on the castle grounds (“The Lusty Month of May”), where Arthur introduces his wife to Lancelot. Guenevere takes an instant dislike to the cocky young man and (challenges) him to engage three knights of the Round Table in a jousting match (“Then You May Take Me to the Fair”). Arthur is dismayed by this and (is) at a loss to understand a woman’s way (“How to Handle a Woman”).
“In the jousting match Lancelot easily defeats all three knights, drawing the admiration of them all, including Guenevere. Lancelot falls in love with (Queen) Guenevere and is torn by the conflict between this love and his devotion to Arthur. He asks permission to leave Camelot for foreign conquests.
“Returning two years later, Arthur makes him a Knight of the Round Table. Arthur is painfully aware of the feelings between Lancelot and Guenevere but remains silent to preserve the tranquility of the Camelot.
“Lancelot reveals his feelings to Guenevere (“If Every I Would Leave You”). Nevertheless, she remains faithful to Arthur, and helps him in carrying out the affairs of State (“What Do Simple Folks Do?”).
“Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, comes to Camelot to dishonor the King and try to gain the throne for himself. He schemes . . . to trap Arthur in a forest one night. During the night, Lancelot visits Guenevere in her chambers, where she reveals her love for him (“I Loved You Once in Silence”).
“Mordred and some of the Knights of the Round Table interrupt, accuse Lancelot of treachery, and imprison him. Lancelot escapes, but Guenevere is sentenced to burn (“Guenevere”). At the last moment, Lancelot rescues her and takes her off with him to France.
“For the sake of his own honor and that of Camelot, Arthur must now wage war on France. Just before the final battle, he meets Lancelot and Guenevere, and forgives them both.
“In camp, Arthur meets a young stowaway who wants to join the Round Table. Arthur knights him on the field of battle and sends him back to England to grow up there and pass on to future generations the ideals of Camelot.”
Two side notes and then my revelation.
First, the song “If Ever I Would Leave You” (erroneously called “If Ever I Should Leave You” in the Golden Globe citation) was nominated and won in the category Best Original Song Written for a Motion Picture, even though it was not written especially for the film.
It was written for the original stage production of Camelot, and all the other nominees were songs especially written for films. This is the only instance in the history of the Golden Globe Awards that this has happened.
Second, even though Richard Burton won a Tony for Best Actor in the stage play and was offered the same part as King Arthur in the film, he turned it down. Richard Harris was magnificent in his performance as King Arthur in the film.
And the revelation? Camelot the play and Camelot the film were both truly inspirational musical productions, but I submit that the story Camelot was much more.
I felt in my heart that Camelot was also a primer in civilized human relationships and personal growth as well as a step forward for humanity. Let me explain.
When King Arthur realizes the relationship between his Queen and his chief knight, he says this, reacting like a man:
“I love them and they answer me with pain and torment. Be it sin or not sin, they betray me in their hearts and that’s far sin enough. I can feel it in their eyes. I can feel it when they speak, and they must pay for it and be punished. I shall not be wounded and not return it in kind! I’m through with feeble hoping! I demand a man’s vengeance!”
Then he calms down and says this, reacting like a king: “Proposition: I’m a king, not a man. And a very civilized king. Could it possibly be civilized to destroy the (ones) I love? Did they ask for this calamity? Can passion be selected?”
In the end, King Arthur takes the high road. He would not punish either of them given his druthers, he realizes he still loves Guenevere and loves his best friend and knight, Lancelot, as a brother.
He cannot, however, stop Guenevere from burning at the stake for her indiscretion. He enlists his confidant King Pellinore to watch and see if Lancelot will attempt to rescue her in time. Thankfully, Lancelot does.
King Arthur sees the wisdom of the Round Table, bringing the knights of the kingdom together to protect the weak rather than fight among themselves at the expense of the weak.
King Arthur sees the wisdom of a legal system that gives the accused his day in court rather than fighting for his life in a duel whether the accused is guilty or innocent. Poor King Pellinore does not understand or accept this precursor to rule by law rather than rule by might.
King Arthur uses his love to overcome his pain and suffering and ultimately loses not only the love of his life but his best friend.
And, most important, despite going into a battle he may well lose and perhaps even die, he has the presence of mind to knight a young man to carry his hope into the future, so his vision will continue.
Is Alan Jay Lerner a great writer of screenplays? Perhaps the best, ever. You decide. Camelot has been on my Top 10 Favorite Movie List for 40 years. Now you know why.