“Each evening from December to December
Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
Think back on all the tales that you remember
The knock on “Camelot” when it first came out in 1967, and even today, is that it’s overblown. It’s too long, too busy, too opulent, too fussy, too gaudy, too sprawling, too unfocused, and too slow. Well, it is too long. But as for the rest, I can only say I disagree. This is a grand Lerner and Loewe (“My Fair Lady“) musical presented in a grand fashion. Sure, it gets long-winded, but you can’t blame director Joshua Logan (“Mister Roberts,” Sayonara,” “South Pacific,” “Paint Your Wagon”) for trying to duplicate the splendor of the original Broadway production, which, if you ever saw it, was pretty darned splendid, indeed. Be that as it may, this forty-fifth anniversary Blu-ray Book edition offers viewers a chance to skip any parts of the film they don’t like and enjoy the parts they do, which can be many and enjoyable. One’s viewing and listening experience can be a full, three-hour music-fest or a brief stint with favorite songs. Technology is wonderful.
Alan J. Lerner based the plot of “Camelot” on T.H. White’s Arthurian novel “The Once and Future King,” 1958, which White based in turn on parts of Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur,” 1485, which Malory based on numerous French, German, and English versions of the Arthur legends written hundreds of years before he got to them. So, yes, “Camelot” has a history.
The story recounts, largely in song, the familiar love triangle of King Arthur, Queen Guenevere, and Sir Lancelot. My own major concern with the story, though, has nothing to do with its length or its lack of focus but with its actors. At the time, it greatly disappointed me that the original Broadway cast had not reprised their roles in the film. Richard Harris plays Arthur, and he seems to grow in the role as the movie progresses. But he is no more than an acceptable if somewhat grudging substitute for Richard Burton, who declined to do the movie. Vanessa Redgrave plays Guenevere, and she is really quite stunning, the best part of the picture. Yet Julie Andrews would have done her own singing, and the songs are mainly what the film is about. Ms. Andrews, too, declined to reprise her role. And a really major letdown is Franco Nero as Lancelot. He is simply no Robert Goulet, in stature, voice, or dramatic ability, a criticism supported by the fact that as an actor Nero disappeared into the woodwork of second-rate films as soon as he finished “Camelot.”
Nevertheless, the cast do their best, with David Hemmings a deliciously slimy Mordred and Lionel Jeffries a delightfully dotty old King Pellinore. Laurence Naismith as Merlyn looks good but is otherwise forgettable. The sets are lavish, the art direction, costumes, and music won Academy Awards; and, needless to say, the songs are still the songs, among them “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight,” “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “C’est Moi,” “The Lusty Month of May,” “How to Handle a Woman,” “If Ever I Should Leave You,” “I Loved You Once in Silence,” and, of course, the title tune, “Camelot.” They are as beautiful as ever.
Trivia notes, thanks to John Eastman in “Retakes” (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989): “Count how many times you see the color red in this Arthurian musical. Josh Logan wanted the pageantry to look unlike any Hollywood medieval epic ever filmed so he tried not to use the scarlet cloth so typical of most. Since there was no need for historical accuracy in portraying a legendary kingdom, he gave designer John Truscott free rein in creating a variety of strange objects, costumes, and settings. Costumes, not including 361 suits of armor, numbered some 3,500, each given a hand-loomed appearance and home-dyed color. The rainy-green color of the acreage surrounding Camelot (actually Coca Castle) was accomplished by spraying watercolor paint on a brown summer landscape; and the English fog was achieved by giant wind machines blowing clouds of chemical mist over the scenery. Logan filmed key prologue and epilogue scenes in Spain. Joyous Gard, the castle of Sir Lancelot, was actually the famed Alcazar in Segovia. At the other end of the world, Camelot’s dense forest stood on Stage 8 of Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Studios, draped in ten tons of artificial snow. Genuine romance blossomed between Redgrave and Nero, who met on the set and thereafter lived together and produced a child. Tom and Sue Logan, the director’s children, played the farm boy and goose girl in the first scene of the movie filmed.”
Warner Bros. have transferred the movie to high-definition Blu-ray in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec. The filmmakers shot it mainly in earth tones, yet the colors still look good, if sometimes in muted shades. In other words, colors are natural in a realistically subdued sort of way, never bright or showy. Similar to what we got on the DVD, there are no egregious glitches, fades, or scratches, just a few white flecks here and there. However, the image is often very soft, and there are occasional scenes in which one cannot help noticing the grain and noise. While most of the film is reasonably clear, there are some shots of Harris’s face, for instance, that seem positively swarming with black specks. Also, from time to time the picture looks slightly distorted, faintly squished, as though the video engineers had not quite converted the 35 mm anamorphic Panavision frames back to their appropriate dimensions. Still, the Blu-ray’s PQ is an improvement over the DVD, for whatever that’s worth; personally, I was a little disappointed.
The movie comes with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which provides a wide stereo spread and a little rear-channel ambiance bloom in the musical numbers. In addition, the tonal balance is quite lifelike, dynamics are fine, and the midrange is smooth and easy on the ear. There’s not much in the way of transient quickness, though, nor bass and treble extension, a normal expectation.
For this forty-fifth anniversary edition of “Camelot,” Warners have given it the full Blu-ray Book treatment, with more extras than ever. First up on the disc is an audio commentary by film critic and film historian Stephen Farber, which should please fans of the film and film buffs in general. Next is a thirty-minute featurette, “Camelot: Falling Kingdoms,” which recounts studio chief Jack L. Warner’s attempt to duplicate with the movie the success he enjoyed with “My Fair Lady.” After that is the ten-minute featurette “The Story of Camelot,” which is a vintage, making-of promo for the film. And then there’s the thirty-minute featurette “The World Premiere of Camelot,” which shows us what things were like on the movie’s opening night.
The extras conclude with thirty-five scene selections; five different theatrical trailers in aspect ratios varying from 1.33:1 to 1.85:1 to 2.40:1; English as the only spoken language; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Finally, because this is a Blu-ray Book, we get a forty-page hardbound book with color pictures and a load of notes. To make a good package even better, Warners have also included a bonus CD soundtrack sampler with four songs: “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” “Camelot,” “How to Handle a Woman,” and “If Ever I Would Leave You.” The two discs fasten to the inside front and back covers via Digipak clips.
“Camelot” has its critics, to be sure, but I am not particularly one of them. It is an epic musical of heroic dimensions; a sentimental, idealistic piece of romance and adventure, fluff to be sure, but fluff I continue to enjoy.
“Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one, brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.”