Camelot, director Joshua Logan's big screen adaptation of the play of the same name (in turn based on the novel The Once And Future King by T. H. White), took home three Oscars the year it hit theaters and while it may have aged a bit and take some interesting liberties with the casting, the storyline and the music, it still definitely has the power to entertain and pull us in. Additionally, producer Jack Warner, hoping to have another musical hit on his hands after the success of My Fair Lady, poured loads of money into the movie to ensure that it always looked and sounded fantastic.
The three hour story follows Arthur, the legendary Briton who as a young boy pulled the sword from the stone and set into motion the events that would soon see him crowned the King of England. As an adult (played by Richard Harris) he is tutored by Merlyn (Laurence Naismith) and eventually comes to make the acquaintance of the lovely Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave) who he will eventually wed. There are other matters for the king to attend to, however, the most pressing of them being his goal to unite the provinces that make up the country by establishing an order of knights to serve under him and sit at his own round table (round so that there is no head to the table, and therefore no specific leader - they are to work as a team). When Lancelot Du Lac (Franco Nero) of France hears of this group, he decides that he'll do whatever he needs to in order to join their ranks - but he soon falls for Guenevere, obviously complicating matters somewhat.
Arthur grows suspicious and suspects his wife of having an affair with the Frenchman but in the interests of not upsetting the kingdom, he refrains from acknowledging it and forbids anyone who knows of it from speaking of it. Eventually this secrecy takes its toll on the Knights Of The Round Table and on the country itself, particularly once Arthur's own illegitimate son, Mordred (David Hemmings), shows up with sinister plans of his own.
Those looking for a completely legitimate take on the Arthurian legend probably won't find too much to love about this film as it definitely takes liberties, as most films do when adapting subject matter such as this. Likewise, those hoping for a more literal adaptation of the stage play on which it was based may find themselves remiss to learn that not every single one of the musical numbers made it to the silver screen. Camelot is, however, quite an achievement in a lot of ways. The film was shot on a mix of actual historic castles on location in Europe and sound stage and reconstruction sets built on a Warner Brothers back lot (some of which got recycled in the David Carradine TV series Kung Fu!) and you've got to give the filmmakers credit for really coming up with some great set design. It's all shot with a careful eye for framing and composition and definitely benefits from some great production values. In short, Camelot is a beautiful looking film and a bit of a visual treat, really, though this is in spite of and not because of Logan's choice to use a lot of close ups and zooms throughout the movie (they kind of defeat the point of all the pageantry - if we can't see it, it doesn't affect us!).
Though the three leads are quite good here, Redgrave in particular (she is quite stunning as Guenevere), they don't always 'fit' with the musical aspect of the feature, though much of this has to do with the tragic and downbeat aspect of the story itself. The vocals are all arranged and recorded perfectly and the score is performed with admirable skill but there are moments where the musical bits sweep up out of the back of the film to take the front and don't quite work. This is, after all, a tragedy more than anything else and sometimes the whole singing and dancing aspect of the production seems quite at odds with the narrative. It makes for kind of an odd film, particularly by the standards of the typical Hollywood musical, but thankfully it doesn't usually take away from it all that much. Harris is strong as the noble Arthur, and he plays his part with the sort of restrained nobility that he'd become known for. Nero, his foil (and probably best known these days for Django more than anything else - not that there's even the slightest bit wrong with that), is dashing and charming in his own way even if his Italian roots don't always make for the most convincing Frenchman to hit the silver screen (it doesn't help that he was dubbed by Gene Merlino for 'If Ever I Would Leave You'). And then there's lovely Vanessa Redgrave, in all her scene stealing beauty. While she'd go on to take far more challenging and daring roles (Ken Russell's The Devils instantly comes to mind), you can't fault her here. She's every bit as captivating as the character needs to be and she plays the part with such conviction that you can easily see why both Arthur and Lancelot fall for her.
So with that said, does the film hold up well? As a slice of fantastic classic Hollywood entertainment, absolutely. Despite the fact that it's long, despite the fact that it's actually a fairly serious downer of a story, despite the fact that it's peppered with strange camera zooms and despite the fact that it takes some liberties with the legend of King Arthur Camelot succeeds. It pulls us right in with an excellent soundtrack and a wonderful score and serves as a treat both for the ears and the eyes thanks to a constant barrage of gorgeous visuals. It may have been one of the last great Hollywood musicals of the sixties and it may have its flaws but it's almost impossible for anyone who appreciates a good musical not to get caught up in the majesty of it all.
Camelot arrives on Blu-ray in a very good in 2.40.1 widescreen by way of the AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer. The darker moments in the film, and there are quite a few of them, still look quite dark here, as they should but outside of those spots we see very strong detail throughout, particularly in the close up scenes. Some shots are intentionally soft looking and like the darker spots, those have been left as is and still look soft but if you've seen the movie before you won't be put off by that as it's simply how the movie was meant to look when it played in theaters and it does sometimes add to certain tones and intentions throughout the movie. Skin tones look nice and lifelike, texture is good throughout and black levels are fairly strong as well. This film doesn't quite pop the way that a lot of vintage musicals do, the preference here is for earth tones rather than flamboyant reds and pinks or warmer colors like that. This does, however, feel like quite an authentic and filmic high definition presentation in keeping with how the movie should look in the first place.
The only audio option for the feature is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track but it's a good one to be sure. The musical numbers sound excellent, with great use of the surrounds made to really fill up the room not just with the vocals but with the instrumentation as well. Sounds effects used throughout the movie come through well, the levels are always very well balanced and the track features some very impressive depth and range to it that makes everything just that much more fun. There are a few spots where some lip synching is almost painfully obvious in a few of the musical bits but otherwise, aside from some very slight hiss in a couple of spots, things sound clean, clear and well defined. Optional subtitles are provided in English and Spanish.
The extras on the disc start off with a commentary track that comes courtesy of Stephen Farber who gives us a veritable history lesson on Camelot, both in its film and stage incarnations, as well as almost everyone involved in it. It's a little dry at times but is fairly packed with all the trivia and background details you'd expect from a well researched commentary such as this and if you want to know more about the film, this is definitely the most concise way to do that.
From there, check out Camelot: The Falling Kingdoms, which is an all new half hour long featurette (and the only supplement presented in high definition) that does an excellent job of putting the history of this production into context alongside the American political landscape of the time and where Warner Brothers was at as a studio while it was being made. Some pertinent interviews and some great archival material make this quite worthwhile. The Story Of Camelot is a ten minute featurette made to promote its original theatrical release. It starts off with some clips from an archeological dig that attempts to make the movie look like a far more serious picture than it actually is, and from there gets into different promotional bits and pieces. It's not nearly as comprehensive as the longer featurette but it's interesting to see from a vintage marketing materials stand point. Also interesting is the half hour long World Premiere Of Camelot featurette, that shows how a clothing line was made to tie into the film and which shows up all of the spectacle and pomp Warner Brothers rolled out for the film's debut in hopes of blowing the box office wide open with the film.
Rounding out the extras are five different trailers, animated menus and chapter stops. The disc comes housed inside a nice hardcover book package that includes some liner notes and facts/figures about the film in addition to a second disc which is a CD containing four tracks from the film's original score.
While it's obvious that certain elements of Camelot haven't aged all that well and while the whole thing often feels fairly ridiculous, you can't help but get sucked into it. Everything is so polished, so slick and so well put together and set to such an infectious batch of songs that the ridiculousness of it all soon gives way to a certain sense of cinematic bliss. Warner Brothers has done a good job on the Blu-ray, packaging it very nicely, throwing in some solid extras and offering it up in very nice shape. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.