Some have called it sappy. Others have called it a flawed musical. Still others call it a medieval fantasy. Whatever you call it Camelothas a place in classic American cinema.
This 1967 film directed by Joshua Logan was adapted from the Broadway musical of the same title. Though widely accepted that it was not a great cinematic feature (the Academy Awards it did win were all in costumes and set design), the film benefited greatly from the times. In the 1960s there was a deep fascination with Camelot and King Arthur’s narrative. So much so that it drew comparisons to the royalty of the United States: the Kennedys. The Kennedys loved the musical. According to the First Lady, she and the President would listen to the soundtrack of the musical at the end of the each evening.
Whether it was intentional or not, the film pays homage to the assassinated President Kennedy. As the film opens it is draped in mystery as Arthur (Richard Harris, probably best known as Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films) sits in the damp and misty forest calling upon Merlyn, the mystic magician. Arthur is about to go into battle, though he would prefer to avoid it. In this state of uncertainty he cries out to Merlyn (Laurence Naismith), who instructs Arthur to remember the day he met Guenevere (wonderfully played by Vanessa Redgrave). From here the film goes back to that day and we follow along as the story of this romance unfolds.
But the film is about more than just a romantic tale of King and Queen, and more than just the love triangle that develops when Lancelot (Franco Nero) is introduced to the narrative. Arthur wants to bring about social change. As he tells Guenevere, “Merlyn taught me to think without boundaries.” Arthur ponders how peaceful the kingdom would be if disagreements were not settled by violence. As he dreams about this with Guenevere, he images a round table that they would all sit at to discuss these issues. A round table, not a square table, so no one may be seated at the head of the table. Not everyone in his kingdom buys into this image as easily as the French knight Lancelot.
Lancelot rides into town with great respect for King Arthur. He is filled with excited hope to witness this new vision of kingdom. And to some extent that is what Lancelot represents in this film. Excited hopefulness. An excited hope fueled by Lancelot’s desire to do good and to right wrongs. Lancelot is the only French knight of the Table. Lancelot comes because Arthur’s vision gives him hope.
But Lancelot is also a religious voice in this film. A majority of the characters never really say much about religion. When we first meet Guenevere she is praying to some goddess. Meryln seems to be a holy figure to Arthur. But for Lancelot, he expresses without apology his Christian faith. In a jousting contest, Lancelot hits his opponent hard enough to knock him off his horse and leave him wounded. Arthur pronounces the knight dead. Lancelot looks on from his horse, uncertain about what he should or shouldn’t do. He eventually jumps off his horse, removes the King’s cloak from the dead man, grabs his face into his hands and beings to pray. As he does so, he is weeping. The man eventually opens his eyes. The people are amazed, including Guenevere.
From here Lancelot’s romance with Guenevere begins. He feels that God has led him to her. He begs for forgiveness because he knows it his wrong to be in love with a woman who is married. Yet, the romance continues. In the meantime Arthur is developing his dream. The Round Table is becoming a reality. The vision is extended from nations and knights to the common people. Courts are developed where disagreements can be settled.
Arthur’s vision of a peaceful kingdom is threatened when a young man named Mordred comes into town. When Mordred relieves that he is Arthur’s illegitimate son, Arthur takes him under his wing. But Mordred has his own agenda. Mordred uses Arthur’s vision against him in an attempt to overthrow him as king. They catch Guenevere and Lancelot expressing their love and drag them to King Arthur where Mordred reminds him about his vision of courts and juries handling matters like this.
A trial is held and the jury decides that Guenevere is guilty of treason and is to be put to death by burning at the stake. One character says, “Your table has cracked, Arthur.” Arthur calls upon Meryln that night: “They forgot justice.” Without justice, the vision of the new kingdom is ruined.
Seeking justice without violence is a major theme throughout the Old Testament prophets. The ancient Hebrews believed that injustice equated the absence of God. The prophet Habakkuk pleas with God about ending the violence and the injustice. He pleads for God’s presence to be felt, to be known. God repeatedly responds back that in time things will change. In the gospels the disciples and others long for the day when Jesus will lead them to victory over the oppressive Romans. But the Kingdom that Jesus preached about in the Gospels was a different kind of vision. A vision of peace and all at table.
As in Arthur’s time, the vision requires thinking outside of the boundaries. As such, the vision has been difficult to achieve. But, let us hold on to excited hopefulness for the Kingdom.