***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B-
starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, David Hemmings
screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, based on his play and The Once and Future King by T.H. White
directed by Joshua Logan
by Jefferson Robbins Joshua Logan's Camelot sucker-punched audiences, I suspect, and did so in slow-motion. Maybe the source musical, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, did as well. Mention the legend of King Arthur and our first notions are of magic and righteous triumph; we forget the betrayal and Fall. The overall air of the film is stabs of paradise framed by battle and tears, with most of the misery encroaching from offstage. Yet when the King's dream finally dies, it dies viscerally. Find late in Camelot Arthur (Richard Harris) hiding from the collapse of his new social order in the wooded bower where he once studied with his vanished tutor Merlyn. He imagines soaring as a bird, as he did while Merlyn's pupil, but his spirit-animal is interrupted by a hunter. It's Mordred (David Hemmings), the fruit of Arthur's forgotten sins, and his entry with bow and arrow reasserts the brutality that will pull down the kingdom.
Like many aspects of the movie, this is probably not what producer-mogul Jack Warner had in mind. By the time of Camelot's release, the once-surefire Broadway-to-film musical conduit had frayed to the point of snapping, as the hip youth market soaked up new flavours from Europe and older audiences turned away from cinema altogether. The 1960 stage musical probably appealed to Warner for what seemed like built-in marketing triangulation: Here was a successful theatre romance with the kind of pagan mysticism that had seized the minds of America's young. With Logan at the helm, his feet firmly planted in both stage and film worlds, it must've seemed surefire. Ultimately, the commercial failure of Camelot probably had as much to do with chasing (Jack) Warner out of power as the commercial success of Bonnie and Clyde did.1
Audience indifference aside, Logan's film has many enchantments--the moment mentioned above and more we'll come to later--but it feels reactive, too much a creature of its rapidly-changing times. It's sort of an anti-spectacle, a proto-New Hollywood response to Old Broadway. Logan doesn't cut Lerner and Lowe's lengthy book and score (hence the bulbous three-hour running time), but rather de-emphasizes most of its crowd-pleasing elements. The Broadway cast of Richard Burton as Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guenevere, and Robert Goulet as Lancelot is traded out for the youth-friendly Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco "Django" Nero, respectively. John Truscott's costuming and set design make Arthur's domain look less like an enlightened utopia than like an Iberian hunting lodge. (Some of the exteriors were shot in Spain.) Logan deserves much praise for the brave injections of Nouvelle Vague thinking, particularly in the editing and the full sexualization of Guenevere, spotted after her wedding in nude, postcoital repose. Alas the approach, on the whole, isn't mercenary enough to create something truly new. This feels smaller than what Arthurian legend and Broadway demand--perhaps taking cues from T.H. White's The Once And Future King, the source document for Lerner and Loewe's stage play. White's work (the formative novel of my childhood) is remarkably interior for an epic fantasy, a set of philosophical character studies that just happen to occur amid a vast Anglo-Saxon romance. The great feats of legend, particularly the Grail Quest, take place offstage or go unmentioned. White's Arthur grows from neglected, magically tutored young orphan with a great destiny ("Yer a wizard, Harry!") to conscience-racked monarch with a predilection for democracy and a queen whose adultery (with his best friend) he wilfully ignores.2
Lerner and Logan maintain this tripartite approach to character, with King, Queen, and Knight given full vent of expression--quite often in close-up, which deeply erodes the expected scale. Harris's Arthur begins the affair as a young policy wonk invigorated by his plans for governance but dreading his arranged marriage. Either the songs play havoc with Harris's idiosyncratic rhythms of speech, or his speech ("MacArthur Park" aside) disrupts the songs. Or maybe it's Logan's insistence on close-ups without cuts: We get nothing to distract us while Harris counts beats until his next lyric. Something in the star's presentation--the deep blue eyeshadow? The chewy, back-of-the-tongue delivery of certain lines?--evokes a more earnest Brando for me. As his bride-to-be, Redgrave arrives in winter on a horse-drawn litter that had me guffawing with memories of Jane Fonda's ice-sheet deflowering by Ugo Tognazzi in Barbarella. Guenevere spends her opening number ("Simple Joys of Maidenhood") crying out for romance, for ravishment, for a role as a battle prize ("Will kith not kill their kin for me?"), and it's clear from the start that while she and Arthur may come to a marital compromise and even enjoy each other sexually, some spark will always be missing.
Perhaps sensing this, Logan builds the only really exuberant number, "The Lusty Month of May," around his female star. This is also the moment where Redgrave looks most lovely, the mischief inherent in her smile turned loose to play. (She sings pretty well, too.) The most dangerously insinuative film actress of her generation lends weight, for good or ill, to Camelot's overarching suggestion that the kingdom will be brought low by a wanton woman. Guenevere is relentlessly bloody-minded right up to the tournament where she commissions the thrashing of Lancelot. Nero enters the picture as the blithe braggart Lancelot must be ("C'est Moi"), the unconquered puritan who, in the words of comic-relief senior citizen King Pellinore (Lionel Jeffries), talks to no one except Arthur and God. When he's called upon to perform a major miracle on the jousting field, however, the suffering entailed by his purity strikes home, and Nero manages the instant beautifully and almost wordlessly. This is also, not coincidentally, the blooming of Lancelot and Guenevere's love, spurring the otherwise benevolent Arthur to finally employ tyranny, for their own protection. The fourth player in this drama, Arthur's forgotten bastard son Mordred (David Hemmings), is a fifth wheel. He's appropriately louche and viperous, motivated by rootless spite, but he comes on late in the play with no foreshadowing and, worse, without even a song of his own. Mostly, Hemmings's name in the credits with Redgrave's serves as a reminder of Blow-Up, and we hope Mordred will find some reason to molest Guenevere with whatever they had in Mythic Britain in place of Nikons. Nay, the two barely speak, yet their interaction detonates the denouement.
The base story of Camelot is of idealism dashed, decay from the state of grace, and, in White's conception, justice and egalitarianism sublimating back into barbarism. We mere humans are not equipped for the perfection demanded by myth, and those moments where we transcend our frailties will only haunt us later. Visually, this is expressed wherever Logan explores the theme of regret. "If Ever I Would Leave You," in which Lancelot and Guenevere consummate their affair in flashback montage, is one such segment. The song and staging heavily suggest captivity: Lancelot won't leave his lover, because he cannot.3 Guenevere and Arthur's last, happy dance to "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" collapses under awareness of their sins in disorienting quick-cuts. Arthur has nothing left of his sorcerous teacher Merlyn (Laurence Naismith, made fantastical by an excellent alchemy of costume, lighting, bird-wrangling, and performance) save his memories, and these are dangerous realms. Logan recognizes that theatre musicals are sequences of soliloquies, with characters disclosing in song what they cannot by action. Camelot is a brave attempt at dramatizing these expressions in ways that only cinema can, but the cumulative effect is three hours without a particularly memorable set-piece. And as linear drama, it handles the passage of time poorly: Years go by with no one, not even Pellinore, seeming to age. The once and future king indeed.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Logan's Novemberish palette doesn't give Warner's 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation much colour to work with. For the most part, when things in Camelot aren't brown, they're orange. One of the few scenes with a warm flourish is Lancelot's jousting tournament, as the perfect knight in silver and blue fells a series of challengers before a crowd. But the crowd is clothed in mustard, gold, and rust, hardly a Technicolor rainbow. For about the first hour, the dominant shade is Harris's cerulean eyeshadow. The primary Panavision lensing appears to have been quite soft; Logan enjoys playing with shadow, as when Arthur materializes from pre-battle fog or Merlyn steps from the trunk of a tree, suggesting the captivity that is the wizard's ultimate fate in legend. Filmic grain remains warm, never obscuring fine detail (such as the nicotine stains on Redgrave's teeth), though anyone expecting a sensual visual assault is in for disappointment. Soundwise, the movie's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, presumably based on the six-track mix that accompanied Camelot's 70mm engagements, washes us admirably in the score, not to mention crowd scenes and castle interiors. It's undermined by the glaring lack of something that should be de rigueur for Blu-ray releases of musicals by now: a music-only track. The Warner package--a well-appointed hardcover booklet--tries to buy its way out of this jam by bundling a CD with four selections from the soundtrack, three of them sung by Harris and one credited to Nero, even though his pieces were performed (uncredited) by Gene Merlino.4
I'm usually appreciate of unobtrusive BD menus that eschew a bunch of music and movement, but this one just sits there, delivering no information at all about the scene you might wish to jump to. Among its selections is a DD 2.0 commentary track wherein critic and historian Stephen Farber efficiently spotlights what went right and wrong with the production. Right: In his opinion, the close-ups allow the actors to treat the camera, and thus the audience, as a confidante. Wrong: Staging choices, for instance that of Arthur and Guenevere's wedding. "We want to see the grandeur of Camelot, and all we see is a walkway lit with candles!" Farber says with a chortle. Still, Truscott managed to win Oscars for both his costumes and his art direction, and I find the candlelight wedding evocative of the interior solitude of two people in love. His commentary leaves lots of quiet time for viewers to take in the songs and nicely dishes production history and backstory in between. Farber notes that Logan's adroitness as a theatrical director never quite translated to screen, as he lets dialogue unspool too long and drain away any rhythm. "Nobody looks back and thinks of Joshua Logan as one of the great cinematic auteurs," he says ruefully. I was grateful for his guidance.
The mini-doc "Camelot: Falling Kingdoms" (30 mins., HD) ties the musical's phenomenon to John F. Kennedy and parallels the Arthurian decline with the fading of Jack Warner, Warner Bros., and the studio system in general. Motormouth talking heads like Dr. Drew Prescott, Gregory Orr (Warner's grandson), and Mark Evan Schwartz chime in on Camelot's production history, bookended by generous archival photos, many involving Warner's tanned death-rictus. Although the studio chief wanted to import the Broadway stars for the film, Logan's casting strategy prevailed--and arguably drove down the potential box-office to disappointing levels. The JFK necrophilia palls and I can't get too choked up about the vicissitudes plaguing a venal studio boss who icepicked his own brothers and parachuted out Croesus-rich, but it's a well-done artifact. Speaking of artifacts, also enclosed is "The Story of Camelot" (10 mins., SD), a contemporaneous press kit that launches with archaeological field teams digging up Britain's pre-Christian past and spins off into behind-the-scenes footage. Five standard-def theatrical trailers of varying length round out the Blu-ray.
1. This wound up being Warner's last film as studio head before his 1969 retirement, and the third-from-last film he would ever produce. return
2. The great genre scholar John Clute has this adaptational gripe in his Encyclopedia of Fantasy entry on White's novel: "Both stage and film versions are watery." return
3. Nero's miming of this song with Gene Merlino's voice, by the by, is so earnest and awkward that it nearly undoes the pathos mined earlier. return
4. In the strangest iTunes/Gracenote glitch I've ever encountered, the artist behind this CD is identified as Portishead. That would be a worthy extra. return
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