From Page to Screen: Camelot (1967)


based on
The Once and Future King by T. H. White


1967 • 179 minutes • Warner Bros.

Camelot is how Captain Cinema and I met. Back in at our small town high school in Georgia, our theater director screened it for our class, presumably trying to select the longest possible musical to keep the normal children out of his hair while the theater kids were complicating his life. (I’m guessing here, although I did later end up among the theater children.) “C’est Moi” began playing and we, seated next to each other, began mercilessly riffing it. (“I ‘ave come from France!” “Oh, yes, we very definitely heard you coming, Lancelot, that’s quite a pair of lungs on you, my good fellow.”) We’ve been friends ever since.

Despite that seminal adolescent screening of Camelot, I had no idea that the musical was based on T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Which is no credit to it in my eyes. The Once and Future King is one of those sf classics that most people seem quite fond of, but I could never quite get my hooks into. I’d say it was a French-American kid’s natural aversion to L’Angleterre, except that Arthurian mythology is really, really French. (Which is why J. R. R. Tolkien, ever the Anglo-Saxon, decided to give England a proper English mythology. And thus modern mainstream fantasy was born!) To very poorly caricature Jebediah Atkinson, I didn’t like it when it was a book, I didn’t like it when it was a musical, and I didn’t like it when it was a movie. NEXT!

Okay, like the book, there are specific parts I quite like. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe did pick out and focus on White’s best riff on Arthurian mythology: the tragic, doomed love of Guinevere (here often called just Jenny, how frightfully swinging sixties) and Lancelot, filtered through Lancelot’s fervent and sweaty devotion to God. It’s something that blooms against their will. Lancelot’s religion and reputation precedes him; Jenny’s first song finds her ferociously abandoning her patron saint if she can’t have men dying for her and threatening to worship a vague “someone else.” She hates Lancelot on sight and, in the song “Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” asks several knights to beat the living daylights out of, if not kill, Lance. But they don’t succeed; in fact, Lance kills one of the knights in defense and then seemingly raises him from the dead. Jenny’s reaction of awestruck terror is a fascinating, indelible moment, and from then on, they’re in love. But it’s hardly a romance—it only brings them pain. Even “If Ever I Would Leave You,” the show’s big romantic ballad, is portrayed in the film as almost a fantasy sequence. I’ve never seen their doomed love hit so hard before.

I’m also quite fond of Vanessa Redgrave as Jenny. It’s almost unfathomable to think of twinkle-eyed, apple-cheeked Julie Andrews, who originated the role, as Jenny, when a luminescent and sly Redgrave sinks her teeth into Jenny as much as the character will allow. This is the second frustrating case of the same for Andrews in the sixties; she appeared in neither Camelot or My Fair Lady, despite having originated the roles onstage. This, as we all know, is a heinous crime, and yet… well, listen to Andrews’ perky “The Lusty Month of May” and then to Redgrave’s dreamier and, well, lustier rendition. (Although to Andrews’ credit, she growls out “the lusty month of May!” at one point quite admirably.) Seeing Redgrave play capricious in the sixties is a treat.

Otherwise, though, it falls flat for me. The pacing drags from set piece to set piece and the music sometimes feels fidgety about its tone. Arthur’s reprise of “Camelot” on what we know is his last battlefield is meant to play nostalgic, but the lyrics are so tweely witty that it never clicked for me. It feels like something going through the motions with occasional flashes of life, like a show in its death throes. And perhaps Camelot was—this film adaptation capped three successful productions in the United States and London. But the show’s been revived since, and I wonder what it would play like in a new production. I’m not normally one to call for more grit, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some more in Camelot.

Oh, one last thing—“C’est Moi” remains screamingly and unintentionally hilarious. You have never seen someone with bluer eyes than Franco Nero (yes, that Franco Nero) in Technicolor.

My roommate owns this DVD.

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