There was a time when saying the brand name “Fox” aloud didn’t indicate that you were talking about News Corp. and its right-leaning media omnipresence. Turn the clock back a few decades and “Fox” evoked a media goliath entirely of a different stripe, that of the movie business, in all its glory, and all its folly. 20th Century Fox, as run by Darryl F. Zanuck, produced some of the most expensive movies of all time (even by today’s standards, given inflation)—chiefly musicals, historical epics, or some hybrid of the two. Audiences at the time were well accustomed to formats like CinemaScope and the emerging 70mm, and if a given property had sufficient pre-sale cache, it was sent around the country as a “road show” attraction. The downside to this culture, of course, was that many of these films ended up costing the studio millions of dollars, even if they sold a lot of tickets. Titles such as Cleopatra, Doctor Dolittle, and Star!, among others, nearly bankrupted Fox, and helped pave the way for the studios to be swallowed whole by even larger, often multinational, concerns.
Across town at Warner Bros., nearly as much ink was spilled over Jack Warner’s production of one of the hottest properties on Broadway, Camelot. Unlike some of Zanuck’s flops, the movie version doesn’t carry the stigma of gross overproduction, unreasonably high expectations, scandalous behind-the-scenes tales, and popular indifference—at least, not nearly to the same degree as Zanuck’s train wrecks. In terms of historical memory, Camelot emerges only a little worse for wear, having turned a small profit and won a few Oscars.
In movie terms, it’s a strange, strange animal, a cautionary tale to any future directors against the dangers of remaining overly faithful to a script’s source material. The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were hardly unknown to the popular imagination before the 1960s, but afterward, they seemed to be everywhere in the cinema, from the art house (Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, Rohmer’s Perceval) to the main boulevard (Monty Python’s parody version, John Boorman’s Grand Guignol spectacle). Camelot, largely faithful to Alan Jay Lerner’s original lyrics and book, is designed not so much to bring the 1960 stage show to cinematic life as to remove any silly impediments to the idea that audiences were watching anything other than an extravagant, and letter-perfect, mounting of Lerner’s Tony-winning blockbuster, rather like contemporary satellite telecasts of Metropolitan Opera performances in HD.
With Joshua Logan (Sayonara, Picnic, Fanny) at the helm, Camelot is practically director-less: His technique is about as advanced as earliest cinema, when the job of the director was filled by two men, one to run the camera, the other to arrange the set. Logan is, if anything, anti-technique to the point of abstraction; he’s the original auteur of the Michael Bay school of confused cinema, only in addition to obfuscatory cutting, he’ll fill out a movie’s running time with long takes that rival the likes of Alfonso Cuarón. Whole swaths of Camelot play like test footage, with an enervating lack of forward momentum. Unless you’re content simply to bask in the presence of Lerner’s lyrics and book, the movie is a bewildering hell.
Or is it? Against all odds, Camelot exerts an inexplicably tolerable charm, almost by the power of its massive, inner contradiction: what it is, and what it isn’t. The music score (adapted by Ken Darby and Alfred Newman, who shared an Oscar for their work) is tough to resist, so if you find yourself smiling and bouncing your knee, guess what? You’re a willing victim of Jack Warner’s devious plot to smother you with tuneful splendor. At the same time, the completely counterintuitive, anti-competent construction of the movie itself binds the viewer in another kind of spell. Camelot is a virtual catalogue of ill-reasoned aesthetic decisions, a show-reel of blunders, held together by the fact that nothing is done for a reason, or correctly: unmotivated zooms, temporal displacements that unintentionally suggest a Resnais-inspired reverie, and telephoto shots of rushing crowds that miraculously pick up on the faces of the actors we paid to see. Logan didn’t get behind the camera very often: Broadway was his wheelhouse. Perhaps that was because his reverse-auteur technique, which erased not just personality and signature but elemental consciousness of any kind, exceeded his usefulness as a yes-man shooter at Warner. But, if you can believe it, there’s a kind of tranquility in the way Camelot, arguably the phoniest, most stage-bound of that decade’s studio musicals, is devoid of such improprieties as film form and film sense.
Cinematographer Richard did a right proper day of work casting Camelot in dreamy, amber hues (prominent during Vanessa Redgrave's, ahem, rather inspiring rendition of "The Lusty Month of May"), as well as the cobalt blues of medieval winter. Forgiving an out-of-focus shot or a bothersome optical zoom here and there, as well as a consistent, if minor, ashen haze, Camelot hasn't looked this good in years, especially since most of its home video life was spent on pan-and-scan videotape.
Having actors who can sing, as opposed to actors who could act, dubbed by singers who could sing, was pretty novel in 1967: Redgrave and Richard Harris acquit themselves honorably; at any rate, they fare better than Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin in Logan's next (and final) film, Paint Your Wagon. You have to reconcile yourself with the acceptable, non-amazing, non-pro vocals if you're going to get anywhere with the movie's soundtrack, and, given those adjusted standards, the disc's DTS-HD 5.1 track is suitably luminous: clean, with strong levels, and well-mixed.
The standard escort for a high-profile Warner musical on Blu-ray: supplemental featurettes, commentary track, a promo pamphlet disguised as a heavy book, and a CD with samples from the song score. None of this succeeds in selling Camelot as a better film than it is, but—ye gods!—it's not for lack of trying. "Camelot: Falling Kingdoms" is a surprisingly slick, entertaining featurette that's got enough weapons-grade snap, crackle, and pop to distract you from the undeserving movie to which it's devoted. The Story of Camelot is its "vintage" counterpart, a featurette contemporaneous to the film's late-'60s production/promotional phase. For the commentary track, Warner snagged film critic Stephen Farber, who stumps for the movie's lavish production values. Going by the supplements alone, you might be fooled for a moment into thinking the movie at their center was halfway-decent. Just for a moment.
Sometimes, the controlling principles of a Blu-ray production match those of its subject. Such is Warner's rather touching devotion, via top-drawer supplements and packaging, to a legendary film that never was...quite the Camelot that was in their hearts.