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Notable for being the last film produced by Jack Warner for his famed studio, Camelot (1967) heralded the end of the big budget movie musical which would reach its nadir at the end of the decade with two disastrous flops, Star! (1968) and Paint Your Wagon (1969). Unlike those two films, however, Camelot struck a resonant chord with audiences who identified with its story of an idealistic ruler whose kingdom was destroyed by human greed, envy and jealousy. Certainly parallels were drawn between the musical's storyline and the Kennedy Administration which saw its empire collapse after the President was assassinated on a Dallas street in 1963. But more than anything, Camelot held a fascination for many viewers because of its mythic qualities; the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is part of our literary culture and has inspired numerous plays, movies and books, the most significant being The Once and Future King by T. H. White, upon which Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe based their stage musical, Camelot.
For director Joshua Logan, a film version of Camelot was an opportunity to correct the faults he found with the Broadway musical, despite its huge success. For one thing, he thought Richard Burton made a very distracted, absent-minded king and he felt that Julie Andrews was too wholesome as Guenevere whom he saw as a true femme fatale. The biggest problem for Logan though was the character of Lancelot, played by Robert Goulet on Broadway. In Logan's autobiography Movie Stars, Real People, and Me, he wrote that Lancelot is "probably the most difficult part to play....Lancelot is French and has come across the Channel to espouse Arthur's passionate cause. He happens to be a holy young man who is able to perform miracles, including bringing back to life one of the knights he has killed in jousting. He does this by praying. And shortly thereafter he readily goes to bed with Arthur's wife. Lancelot is, so to speak, a holy cad. All of which makes him very difficult to play." Logan hoped to correct all these problems with his movie version but his biggest battle was convincing studio mogul Jack Warner to let him film it on location in Europe where castles and historic buildings from the period were still in abundance. Warner refused, demanding that the whole production be filmed on the Warners back lot. Through a strange quirk of fate, Warner soon relented his decision after receiving some tax loophole advice by his creative accounting department and gave Logan the green light.
After scouting various shooting locations for Camelot, Logan decided not to film in England despite a surplus of medieval castles there. The reason being, according to his autobiography, that "the castles in England are either in ruins or have modern additions, whereas Spain is filled with entire castles that were built in the Middle Ages." Eventually the director chose the castle at Coca, Spain for Camelot and the elegant Alcazar in Segovia for Lancelot's fortress, Joyous Gard.
Prior to the financial arrangements Logan spent a considerable amount of time searching for his ideal cast. Richard Harris, the critically acclaimed Irish actor who had just completed Hawaii (1966) with Julie Andrews, was so anxious to play the role of Arthur that he agreed to do a screen test for the part. Despite his reputation as a sometimes difficult actor with a fondness for alcohol, Harris proved he was up to the musical demands of the role with his unique singing style. For Guenevere, Logan desperately wanted Vanessa Redgrave after seeing her in the madcap comedy, Morgan - A Suitable Case For Treatment (1966), but he had to wait several months to get her since she was committed to a play in London - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. As for the role of Lancelot, Logan chose a relatively unknown Italian actor named Franco Nero who matched all the physical requirements for the handsome knight but had to do extensive work on his English and his singing.
As expected for a production of this magnitude, there were plenty of headaches and problems to solve during the filming. The jousting stunts had to be worked out carefully and safely, the knights' armor (composed of a synthetic rubber) had to be pliable and relatively lightweight, the period detail right down to Guenevere's bridal bouquet at her wedding had to be authentic. The real wild card was the actors. Richard Harris turned out to be a practical joker on the set and for a post-marriage bath scene with Redgrave he startled everyone by strutting onto the set completely nude and sporting a large erection. Redgrave was more problematic for Logan, insisting on "creative" enhancements to her dialogue, costumes, and character. For one musical number which accents Guenevere's playful attitude towards Lancelot, she baffled the director by singing her lyrics in French. When questioned as to why, she said, "We're making fun of Lancelot, aren't we? And he's French. Well, the whole idea is that by singing it in French we're making more of a joke of him." Luckily, after an exhausting debate, Logan managed to get her to record the lyrics in English.
But Redgrave also had good suggestions as well. It was her idea to do the song, "Take Me to the Fair," in a constantly changing setting with new backgrounds and costumes for every change of verse to show the passage of time. Most of the big musical numbers were filmed on the Warner Brothers back lot and in her autobiography, Vanessa Redgrave, the actress recalled that "there were hundreds of daffodils and dozens of apple trees in blossom for the 'Lusty Month of May,' all planted and watered and timed to blossom at the beginning of January. Joshua Logan's excitement and enthusiasm, and the skills of hundreds of Warner's craftsmen and women, working for the last time on permanent contract, had transformed the back lot and the sound stages into an extraordinary series of tableaux vivants. Guenevere's dress was made of finely crocheted cream wool cobwebs, hung with bleached melon seeds, each cobweb with a sea-shell at the centre." It was also on the set of Camelot that Redgrave fell in love with co-star Nero (They would go on to have a child together and co-star in two Italian films before ending their affair).
As production on Camelot reached the final phase of its shooting schedule, Logan showed up on the set one day to discover that Jack Warner was pulling the plug on the film due to its runaway budget. He allowed them only one more day to shoot everything they needed. Logan recalled, "I began to pile up in my mind all the various things that we still had to do - Arthur's speech at the Round Table about Guenevere and Lancelot, for instance - bits and pieces of Lancelot's miracle at the jousting match...All of it was hysterical, but we kept on shooting until three or four in the morning. Finally I called a halt, deciding that if we missed anything we'd just have to come back. But we never shot another foot. Jack wouldn't allow it. And we squeezed by. Since it did turn out to be the most beautiful picture I ever made, perhaps Jack was right. At least I had to thank him for giving me a chance to work on such a historically beautiful project."
For the 1967 Academy Awards competition, Camelot received Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Best Music Score Adaptation, winning the statuette for the latter three categories.
Producer: Joel Freeman
Director: Joshua Logan
Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner, based on the novel The Once and Future King T.H. White
Production Design: Edward Carrere, John Truscott
Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Costume Design: John Truscott
Film Editing: Folmar Blangsted
Original Music: Ken Darby, Frederick Loewe
Principal Cast: Richard Harris (Arthur), Vanessa Redgrave (Guenevere), Franco Nero (Lancelot), David Hemmings (Mordred), Lionel Jeffries (Pellinore), Laurence Naismith (Merlyn), Pierre Olaf (Dap), Estelle Winwood (Lady Clarinda), Gary Marshal (Sir Lionel).
By Jeff Stafford