For a guy with a BFA and, now, an MFA in acting, one might expect that I’ve spent a great deal of time with movie musicals, but that just hasn’t been the case. Aside from Singin’ in the Rain and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, I find that musicals simply work better on stage where I am more willing to suspend disbelief. Surprisingly, though, Camelot – the 1967 film adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical – rises above many of its awkward moments by creating three incredible characters that the audience cares about, catchy songs, and beautiful set pieces.
Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot first opened on Broadway in 1960, four years after their smash hit My Fair Lady took Broadway by storm. Camelot, though not as successful as My Fair Lady, ran for 873 performances, and won four Tony Awards (compared to the 2,717 performances and seven Tony Awards that My Fair Lady managed). The film adaptation, directed by Joshua Logan, and starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero, was released in 1967 with great success, including three Academy Awards (for Art Direction, Costume Design, and Music Scoring). What’s most amazing about Camelot, though, is how well it stands up 45 years later.
Chances are high that you’re familiar with the story of Camelot: King Arthur (Richard Harris) meets and marries the beautiful Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave). Arthur invites the best knights in the world to join him at his Round Table in Camelot. The knight Lancelot (Franco Nero) answers the call, and makes his way to the kingdom. Once he arrives, he meets Guenevere, who dislikes him due to his lack of humility. She gathers the three best jousters in Camelot to try and defeat Lancelot, but Lancelot overcomes the men, and then Guenevere and Lancelot eventually fall in love. Throw in the long-lost son of King Arthur – Mordred (David Hemmings) – and you’ve got an epic tale that never seems to tire.
Richard Harris is probably best known to modern audiences as the original Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films, or as English Bob in Eastwood’s Unforgiven. There was a reason that people were worried that Dumbledore might lose his strength as a character when Harris died: Harris was a wonderful talent that brought a human aspect to virtually every role he played. The same can be said for his work as King Arthur. Not only Harris, but Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero also help put Camelot on the top shelf of movie musicals thanks to their incredible attention to detail. Each character is interesting and engaging, moving Camelot from little more than showy songs and dances, to a character-driven drama that tears at the heart.
Speaking of attention to detail, the work done on the costumes and the set is exquisite. Each scene has the ability to transfer the viewer from his or her couch to the lavish world of England in the time of King Arthur. From the wedding scene, to the battle scene, and from jousting in the court, to frolicking through flowers, the rich use of color is one of the most lasting and memorable features of Camelot.
Lerner and Loewe’s music in Camelot is interesting because the songs are solid, but nothing ever seems to push the actors in terms of vocal prowess. Sure the songs are catchy, but I was always waiting for that one special Broadway song that moved me to weeping, cheering, or laughing, and that song never showed up. Even with their simplicity, though, there are a few songs that stand out: “C’est Moi”, sung by Lancelot about how great of a knight he really is, “The Lusty Month of May”, sung by Guenevere and the ensemble about the lusty and sexy side of Camelot, and “If Ever I Would Leave You”, also by Lancelot, that tries to plan out the best time for Lancelot to leave Guenevere. The most technically impressive song is “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” where Guenevere manipulates some of the knights in Camelot to take on Lancelot in jousting battles. It’s reminiscent of a Stephen Sondheim song thanks to the talky-singing mix that it employs, and how smoothly it advances the plot.
One of the main problems of Camelot is how director Joshua Logan handles the songs. He has the characters breaking the fourth wall during many of the solos, looking and singing directly into the camera. It’s not that this device never works, but here it is used too much. When actors break that fourth wall and sing directly to the audience, it can be jarring. Instead of sucking the audience in to the story, which is surely the intention, it alienates the audience and it makes those unrealistic moments of song feel even more artificial.
Camelot also moves along quite slowly at points. For a three-hour movie musical, there are a surprisingly low amount of songs. Though that may sound good to some people, the real point of the musical interludes in traditional book musicals like Camelot is to advance the plot. There are moments in the film that contain five to seven minutes of dialogue that may have been wrapped up just as nicely in a two to three minute song. For modern audiences, the runtime might seem unbearable due to this slow pacing, but fans of movie musicals will probably be too wrapped up in the human aspect of Camelot to care.
The most surprising aspect of Camelot for me is how delightfully charming the whole film is. I care more for the three leads in Camelot than I do in most musicals I’ve seen, which is ultimately the most important aspect. Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero are wonderful as the three legs of the love triangle, and I haven’t even mentioned the work by David Hemmings and Lionel Jeffries, who play smaller, but equally important roles, and manage them perfectly. There is a lot to appreciate about Camelot, and it’s highly recommended for fans of movie musicals of all ages.
Camelot is given a 1080p, 16×9 widescreen treatment, with an aspect ratio of 2.4:1. Both the subtly and the vibrancy of the colors look great on this transfer, and I can’t imagine the film has ever looked better. There are a few moments that are much too dark – specifically the opening and closing bookend scenes – but overall, Camelot looks wonderful, and is free of much film grain or any other imperfections.
The sound has been given just as much attention as the video, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sounds as good as one can hope for. The dialogue is never lost in the music, or vice versa, and the music is rich and full, and sounds excellent on a surround sound system. Warner Bros. also provides English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitle options.
This Blu-ray release is loaded with a number of worthwhile special features:
Audio Commentary by Stephen Farber: Stephen Farber is a renowned film critic that has written for many of the country’s most popular publications, and currently writes for The Hollywood Reporter. I can’t imagine there are many other people in the world that know more about Camelot than Farber, and he delivers an insightful, and engaging commentary on this Blu-ray release. I’ve been spending a great deal of time with commentary tracks lately, and the ones I enjoy best are filled with trivia, but also give insight into the filming techniques and even hypothesize why the director may have made the choices he or she did. Though Farber sticks closer to the prior, he still manages to fit in some important facts about the filming itself. Fans of the film will surely eat this commentary up.
Camelot: Falling Kingdoms (29:59): This short film documentary is a solid and in-depth look at why Camelot was created (to try to save Jack Warner’s failing studio), and how it was made. The incredible attention to detail that director Joshua Logan managed in Camelot is simply astonishing, and this feature shines a light on many of those details. Any fans of Camelot, or anyone interested in how lavish musicals are made, will love what this 30-minute short film covers.
The Story of Camelot (9:45): This special feature looks great, but it’s really more of a marketing tool than anything else. It shows some behind-the-scenes footage, but there are no interviews, or any real insight behind the filming. It looks like something the studio may have released before the movie premiered to try and kick up interest in the film. The transfer is excellent, but there’s not much of relevance here.
The World Premiere of Camelot (29:04): This feature contains footage from the original world premiere of Camelot back in 1967 at the Warner Theatre in Times Square. The hosts make mention that audiences paid $100 a ticket to see the film at its premiere, which, with inflation, comes out to about $700 a ticket today. Some of the footage is rough, but Warner Bros. has cleaned the image up a great deal. The feature contains original interviews from the premiere, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage. This is a strange feature because it’s placed almost entirely in the context of 1967, and is as if the viewer is watching the broadcast live. There is no hindsight in this feature, which is unique, and presents a perspective that is not usually seen in special features. It is definitely more fascinating than entertaining, and is padded out with a lot of footage from the film, but it’s still likely to find an audience with fans of Camelot.
It should be noted that there is a commercial that plays through this feature that advertises robes. Oddly enough, the exact same commercial plays twice, once near the start, and once near the end. I’m not sure if this was a mistake by Warner Bros., or if they intended to put this commercial in twice. If it was intentional, I can’t imagine why the choice was made.
Theatrical Trailers: The Blu-ray also contains five different theatrical trailers, which are all surprisingly different from one another.
Camelot Soundtrack Sampler CD: This CD contains four songs from the musical: “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight”, “Camelot and the Wedding Ceremony”, “How to Handle a Woman”, and “If Ever I Would Leave You”. These are a good sampling of the show, but Warner could have put this release over the top by including the full soundtrack. As it stands, though, I love that these four songs are also included as an added bonus.
Blu-ray Booklet: The Blu-ray case itself is a special feature. This case, which doubles as a booklet, contains beautiful pictures from the film, as well as a short essay that puts the film into perspective for new viewers, and fans alike. There is a short section for trivia, the three lead actors have small biographies, and there is a short feature on the songs of Camelot. This booklet, along with the rest of the special features, help this Blu-ray compete with some of the Criterion Collection releases, which is definitely high praise.
Bonnie and Clyde may have blown Camelot out of the water financially in 1967, kicking off the American New Wave of filmmaking, but Camelot is a great look at what the studio system used to be, and it is still recommended 45 years after its release. Warner Bros. has taken great care to deliver a worthy Blu-ray, filling it with important special features that help give modern audiences that ever-important perspective that the Criterion Collection is usually known for. I know that a home video release is a raving success when I feel like I know more about film history after going through the film and the special features, and that is the case with Camelot. Anyone who has fallen in love with this film since its release in 1967 will undoubtedly want to own this Blu-ray, and those looking for a movie musical with a heart will find a lot to love about Camelot.
Warner Bros. presents Camelot. Directed by: Joshua Logan. Starring: Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, Lionel Jeffries, and David Hemmings. Running time: 180 minutes. Rating: G. Released on Blu-ray: April 24, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.