Back when I was 18 years old, I auditioned for a community theater production of Camelot. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been intrigued with the spectacle and romance of the Arthurian legends and I just knew that I would make the perfect Guinevere. And so, for two nights, I auditioned. I performed “Baby One More Time” as my audition song, I showed off my dance moves, and I did countless cold readings with countless potential Arthurs and Lancelots. At the end of the two days, the director told me that he would be in touch and I left with stars in my mismatched eyes, convinced that I had won the role of Guinevere.
Two days later, I got a call not from the director but from the assistant director. She informed me that while my dancing was impressive, I wasn’t right for the role of Guinevere because:
1) I was too young.
2) I couldn’t sing.
3) My voice carried too much of a rural twang for me to be a believable Queen of England.
However, she did tell me that I had been selected to be a part of the “chorus.” Well, I may have only been 18 but I still had my pride so I told her that, if I couldn’t I play Guinevere, I had no interest in being in their little production of Camelot. I was later told that this caused a lot of people to assume that I was a diva but no matter, I stand by my decision.
When I later saw the theater’s production of Camelot, I felt thoroughly vindicated. It wasn’t just the fact that the actress they cast as Guinevere had no stage presence, no boobs, and a horsey face. It’s the fact that Camelot itself isn’t a very good show. As good as the songs are, Camelot is something of a talky mess and Pellinore is one of the most annoying characters ever.
It was only after I saw that mediocre production that I discovered that there was a film version of Camelot. Released in 1967, the Warner Bros. production was one of the many big budget musicals released in the late 60s. It has a terrible reputation (and was a box office bomb) but I recently decided to watch it for two reasons.
First off, Camelot was nominated for five Academy Awards (though not best picture) and won three (Best Art-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Best Music — Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment). That means that Camelot won two more Oscars than The Graduate and one more than Bonnie and Clyde.
Secondly, this film version of Camelot features Franco Nero (who, in 1967, was literally the most handsome man in the world) in the role of Lancelot.
And so, I recently set aside 3 hours and I watched the film version of Camelot.
Camelot tells a familiar story. Arthur (played here by Richard Harris) becomes king of England and he marries Guinevere (Vanessa Redgrave). At the magnificent castle of Camelot, the most noble knights of England gather at a round table and Arthur preaches equality and chivalry. Eventually, the righteous French knight Lancelot (Franco Nero) travels to Camelot and becomes Arthur’s greatest knight. However, Lancelot and Guinevere fall in love and, as a result of the schemes of Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred (David Hemmings), Lancelot and Arthur are soon at war with each other.
Despite my dislike of the stage production, I actually started watching the film version with high hopes. I have a soft place in my heart for the overproduced musical spectacles of the late 60s and I figured that what was slow on stage might be more tolerable when seen on film. Unfortunately, I was incorrect. Camelot is a painfully old-fashioned film and, clocking in at 179 minutes, it’s also one of the most boring movies ever made. Richard Harris was reportedly miserable while making the film and it shows in his performance. You get the feeling that King Arthur would rather be anywhere other than Camelot.
The only time that the film comes alive is when Franco Nero is allowed to command the screen. While the very Italian Nero is somewhat miscast as the very French Lancelot, that doesn’t change the fact that Nero plays the role with a passion that’s missing from the rest of the film. Franco Nero’s blue eyes did more to make me believe in Camelot than any of the songs sung by Richard Harris. One need only watch the scenes that Franco shares with Vanessa Redgrave to understand why they’ve been a couple for over 40 years.
Ultimately, Camelot is interesting mostly as an example of how the old Hollywood studio establishment attempted to deal with competition from television and European films. Instead of attempting to adapt to the new culture of the 60s, the old studio bosses just continued to make the same movies they had always made, with the exception being that they now spent even more money than before to do so. While it’s easy to mock them, you have to wonder if the Camelot of 1967 is all that different from the John Carter of today.