Camelot Could Use Some Good Singers

Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, David Hemmings, Lionel Jeffreys, Laurence Naismith. Directed by Joshua Logan. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (alternate music-only track). 180 minutes. 1967. Warner Bros. 12238. Rated G. $24.95.

Camelot, the last musical that Lerner and Loewe wrote for the stage, is perhaps best known for its association with the Kennedy years, the line "one brief shining moment" having particular poignancy in this context. The score is outstanding, and, in a great production---like the one I saw last summer at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario---the show impresses as a work of style and substance, powerful in its depiction of human emotions and ideals.

Alas, little of this comes across in the plodding movie version. Well, the style does. The costumes and settings are spectacular; it's easy to see where the $15 million budget (that's 1967 dollars!) was spent. (Camelot won Oscars for Art Direction/Set Decoration and Costume Design.) The medium of film also allows the depiction of events that are only talked or sung about in the stage version, like the jousts and the rescue of Guenevere. However, director Joshua Logan doesn't seem to know how to handle these action scenes, so there's little energy or tension. Another problem is a lack of flow: Scenes tend to drag on, and my attention wanders. At 180 minutes, it's a long movie, and much of it can only be described as tedious.

In a documentary made at the time of the movie's opening (one of the DVD's extra features), Logan says he was given a free hand to choose the ideal cast. One can only wonder what he was thinking. None of the three leads had appeared in a musical before, and none of them can sing. Richard Harris (Arthur) comes closest to being right for the role, and he has a pleasant enough singing voice. However, his style of acting has more than a bit of ham in it, and his tendency to alternate between a hoarse whisper and yelling made me think of Dave Thomas' wickedly accurate parody on the old SCTV show.

In the same documentary, Logan says that for Guenevere, he wanted an actress who could sing, was believable as a queen, and had a sensual quality. Vanessa Redgrave has the regal bearing down pat, and she does exceptionally well with the sensuality bit (she looks quite stunning), but her singing is close to embarrassing. As for Franco Nero (Lancelot)---well, he's certainly good-looking. His English is heavily accented (he learned English for the movie), which would be all right if the accent were French, but it's obviously Italian. He gives songs like "C'est Moi!" and "If Ever I Would Leave You" the old college try, but he just can't handle the vocal demands. David Hemmings almost steals the show as the villainous Mordred, and he is the only one of the principals with a background in singing. Strangely enough, though, Mordred's song, "The Seven Deadly Virtues," was dropped in the transition from stage to screen.

On a purely technical level, the DVD is hard to fault. The widescreen image is clear and highly detailed, with vibrant colors and no digital artifacts that I noticed. The sound quality of the remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is fine. Two documentaries are included as extras: the aforementioned Camelot World Premiere (interviews with Joshua Logan, Alan Jay Lerner, designer John Truscott, and Richard Harris), and The Story of Camelot, an informative behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. Pity the movie itself is not better.