Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where Camelot (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that he lacks a formal film education and that he learned a lot about filmmaking as a craft by visiting sets as a journalist. He writes, “I spent full days on sound stages during movies like Camelot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watching a scene being done with a master shot and then broken down into closer shots and angles. I heard lighting and sound being discussed. I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I absorbed the general idea. I learned to see movies in terms of individual shots, instead of being swept along by the narrative.”
What Ebert had to say in his review: “Camelot is exactly what we were promised: ornate, visually beautiful, romantic and staged as the most lavish production in the history of the Hollywood musical. If that’s what you like, you’ll like it.” – from his 1967 review for The Chicago Sun-Times
Looks like I finally hit the inevitable crossroads in this project where Ebert & I greatly differ on our enthusiasm for a work. The late, great critic was ecstatic about the mid-60s movie musical Camelot, a towering production that managed to stretch across 170 minutes of celluloid despite omitting several musical numbers from its stage play source material. Personally, I only see the same uninspiring Big Studio bloat here that Ebert chided in our last lesson, the John Wayne action epic Hellfighters, except without that film’s stray moments of immense beauty. Arriving at a time when New Hollywood rebels like Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate were re-energizing an increasingly workmanlike, dispassionate movie industry, this three hour swashbuckling Ren Faire musical feels lame, stale, uninspired. I can totally see how musical theater geeks or folks obsessed with Arthurian folklore could be enamored with the late-era Old Hollywood spectacle of Camelot (Ebert doubly so, since it was one of the first film sets he was invited to visit as a writer), but the movie just did nothing for me. Outside of providing some extratextual context for the recent film Jackie & boasting a delightfully mischievous performance from a young, scene-stealing Vanessa Redgrave, Camelot weighed on me heavily as an overlong bore. I couldn’t even take pleasure in its period-specific costuming, which had all of the visual interest of a local, underfunded Ren Faire.
Is there any point to summarizing the plot of this Arthurian legend? King Arthur, Merlyn, Excalibur, Guenevere, Lancelot, and the Knights of the Round Table should all be familiar names in the public conscious, even if by secondhand knowledge through Disney’s The Sword and the Stone or a half-remembered Wishbone episode. Besides a dirty hippie version of Merlyn nearly pulling off a proto-Rob Zombie look, there’s really not much deviation worth describing here. The one thing Camelot does differently from most tellings is delivering most of its character work through song, a result of its nature as a cinematic Broadway adaptation. The film’s main crisis centers on a love triangle vying for Guenevere’s affections, a tension that leads Lancelot & Arthur to engage in battle. The battling itself, depicted through carefully staged sword fights, isn’t nearly as important as the forbidden three-way Hollywood romance, a conflict conveyed through a series of characters noticing each other notice each other with intensely jealous eye contact. This might be compelling if all three participants in this doomed Arthur-Lancelot-Guenevere trio were interesting as individual characters, but only Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Guenevere registers as particularly memorable. In her first two musical numbers, Guenevere sings about the simple joys of living single and how Springtime makes her horny, a one-two punch of strikingly modern numbers with entertainment value never touched by Richard Harris’s nostalgic/sappy performance as King Arthur. Unfortunately (but understandably), Arthur’s whiny inner conflicts eat up a majority of the runtime and Redgrave isn’t given nearly enough screentime to counterbalance the film’s overlong chore of a slow-drip narrative & uninteresting visual appeal.
Obviously, it’s highly likely that I’m the one who’s wrong about Camelot‘s entertainment value & filmmaking merits. After all, Ebert was likely much better equipped to judge the worth of a musical theater adaptation than I, a cynical outsider to the genre, and it did win three Academy Awards for its efforts: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Music. As heavily referenced in Jackie, the original musical version of Camelot was also a personal favorite of John F. Kennedy’s, so the musical & this adaptation surely held a strong cultural & historical significance in the years following his 1963 assassination. I’m okay with being the modern philistine who can’t relate with the material, because it’s just so far outside what I usually seek out in my entertainment media. It would take a very specific kind of theater/Ren Faire nerd to fully embrace Camelot as a first watch in 2017 and I just don’t fit the type. I will say, however, that Vanessa Redgrave’s performance, particularly in her musical number about Springtime horniness, almost made the three limp hours that surround it worthwhile. She’s that great.
Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)
Brandon’s Rating (2/5, 40%)
Next Lesson: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)