King Arthur Daze continue here at CdM as I finally watched Camelot, which I have never seen. I’m actually quite illiterate on classic musicals anyway, being a Bad Gay™, so they’re all kind of new to me in a pleasant way. Ironically, at the moment I was checking out, the video store had on the scene of Jackie where the score of Camelot comes up on the soundtrack.
This movie is based on The Once and Future King, which is TH White’s exploration of four key periods of Arthur’s life, fleshing them out with character and psychology since Le Morte d’Arthur is quite spare on any emotions except wroth or dole. As such, I was surprised to find that it does a fairly decent job of bringing the characters to life and giving them semi-credible psychologies, and it does make an attempt to give a basic swipe at the changes in law and civilization that Arthur brought in. However, it is primarily interested in the love triangle aspect, and all of the deep Freudian-style connections and hidden motivations underlying the Malory telling are swept clean away. Not to mention the tremendous complication of the quest for the Holy Grail, which is excised completely from this version.
Richard Harris, whom I had never seen in his prime, actually makes a quite fine Arthur, both in look and presenting a believable temperament. Vanessa Redgrave is Vanessa Redgrave and can pretty much do no wrong, and makes a fine Guinevere, beautiful enough that you can believe these two guys would love her, and spirited enough that you can believe she would have along-lasting affair with her husband’s best friend. Franco Nero as Lancelot is perfect by looks [I even suffered watching him without a mustache], and is duly swept away by it all, but is the weakest of the actors. And his character, by far the most complex of them all, is given short shrift. With poor Nero, though, I kept sitting there saying “From here to Shark Hunter,” and “From here to Enter the Ninja.” For an insufferable bad guy, you must have David Hemmings, and have him they do. True, it may be a case of an evil person being portrayed as a sniveling, evil gay queen, but at the same time, it’s a credible version of Mordred and you do genuinely want to punch his lights out.
The thing is, Le Morte d’Arthur, which is the primary source for all Arthurian lore, is extremely sparse [being in Middle English], which is actually its strength, as you have to look at the characters’ often contradictory or confusing words and actions and try to puzzle together their psychology, which becomes kind of fascinating and is, I am prepared to say, probably one of the key reasons the whole thing endures (the project of The Once and Future King is mostly to try to CREATE a psychology for them). Why does Arthur tolerate Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair? What is the nature of the love between the three of them? Why doesn’t Arthur just kill Mordred? And WTF with Lancelot? This is what keeps it fascinating and… those questions do not receive interesting answers here. They are brushed upon, but the answers are not convincing, and thus the whole thing comes off as a bit bloated and superficial. It is amusing enough, and I wasn’t bored [although I watched it over three nights], but, if you only watched this, you wouldn’t have much of a sense of what makes the whole thing so compelling.
The other challenge of the musical is that this is essentially a tragedy, and they need to force some quite big bends of the material to send you off with a song in your heart. The civil war that destroys Camelot is only hinted at, and our central trio have a nice meeting at the end, where we learn that Guinevere is headed off to a convent, something that only understanding her place in causing the death of Arthur could have caused in the text. As for Arthur, he becomes a man more concerned with his place in history than the fact that the woman he loves has betrayed him, so he’s thrilled when a young boy [supposed to be young Thomas Malory] expresses belief in Arthurian ideals. This is taken from the novel, but there, Arthur has come to peace with his ideals, and asks the boy not to kill, and to carry his idea of not killing forward. So, nice try, but not quite. It doesn’t ring true—at all. Oh, and you might never know that Arthur is about to get killed by his son moments after the movie ends.
Still, it has that movie magic [kind of]. The love between Guinevere and Lancelot has a kind of wild, psychotic intensity that it needs. The love of Arthur for Guinevere in the first half is so touching, it’s a shame he essentially forgets about it in the second half. But it’s all a decent attempt, with a nice attempt at imagining the look and with great sets and costumes, and nice songs, and all that, but it should be devastating, and it is definitely not devastating. I wonder if people were ever devastated by a version on the stage.