Camelot is a lighthearted musical comedy that was released in 1967. Starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero, it tells the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It is based on the book, The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. The film opens with Arthur, on the eve of his battle with Lancelot, asking himself, “where did everything go wrong?” Merlin appears to him and tells him to look back to the time when he first met Guinevere. We see Arthur and Guinevere get married, and even though their marriage was arranged, they are still very happy and in love. Arthur forms the Round Table and comes up with the idea of civility and order among the knights. ‘Might for Right’ instead of ‘Might is Right,’ as he calls it. With the formation of the Round Table comes Lancelot du Lac, whom Guinevere dislikes initially. She eventually warms to him and they fall in love with each other. This leads to the infamous love triangle between the three. This is where things begin to go downhill for Arthur. It is around this time that Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son appears. He joins the Round Table and creates chaos in the hopes of destroying the Round Table and Arthur. Mordred tricks Lancelot and Guinevere and catches them in the act. Lancelot escapes, but Guinevere does not. She is tried for treason, and sentenced to be burned at the stake. This forces Arthur’s hand; “Kill the Queen, or kill the law,” as Mordred puts it. Fortunately, Lancelot saves her. Unfortunately, he kills many knights in the process, provoking the remaining knights, who want revenge. The movie ends with Arthur, on the eve of his battle with Lancelot, realizing that even though everything he built was mostly gone, he (and his legacy of Might for Right) would still be remembered.
The film received mixed reviews. Audiences enjoyed it. It made 31 million dollars at the box office. It won 2 Golden Globes (Best Actor and Best Original Score) and 3 Oscars (Best Original Score, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design). However, many thought it was far too long (3 hours) and there was too much focus on the romance. One scene was cited as problematic. In the beginning of the movie, Arthur explains to Guinevere how he became king and he acts out the whole thing. This scene was criticized because it talked about a pivotal scene but did not show it. Many disliked the lack of action and the heavy focus on the romance. The love triangle was what drove the plot. There were two jousting scenes, one fight scene at the end, and that was it. That was the extent of the fighting.
Camelot is based on the story of King Arthur, a fabled king of England. Some of first stories of King Arthur began to appear in the ninth century. Some say he was a Welsh leader, others a Roman general. Le Mort d’Arthur by Thomas Malory is probably the most well-known romance of King Arthur and his knights and, in fact, many modern tales of King Arthur, including The Once and Future King, which in turn influenced Camelot, took inspiration from it.
People have often compared the arc of this tale to the political drama of the 1960s, in particular the Kennedy and post-Kennedy years. At the beginning of the film, we see Arthur asking, “What went wrong?” This reflected the mood of the American people in 1967. People were starting to question the American military’s involvement in the Vietnam war. Antiwar demonstrations were beginning and there was great political unrest. There were analogies drawn between the Vietnam War and the Round Table. The Round Table falling apart in the film mirrored people’s increasing lack of faith in the Vietnam War. Moreover, John F. Kennedy and his administration was often compared to Arthur and kingdom in Camelot. They both were seen as symbols of hope and goodness. The Kennedys were already considered American royalty, and that only increased when JFK was elected. JFK’s assassination was seen as the end of Camelot, which in the film began with Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. After JFK’s assassination, some hoped for another Kennedy presidency with Bobby Kennedy (a return of a “once and future king”). This comparison became stronger with an interview with Jackie Kennedy after JFK’s assassination, when she revealed Camelot had been his favorite musical.
Like many films of that era, the women in period films, particularly Guinevere, are two-dimensional and objectified characters. She is very beautiful, though lacks personality. Her purpose in the film is to drive forward the stories of the other knights. There is a song that Arthur sings after a fight with Guinevere called “How to Handle a Woman.” In it, he is asking why Merlin didn’t teach him how to “rule” a queen. “Merlin told me once, never be too disappointed if you don’t understand what a woman is thinking, they don’t do it very often, but what do you do while they are doing it.” This line compares women to “creatures,” (as Arthur puts it) who act without reason. Even more problematic is an early scene in the film in which Guinevere assumes Arthur is going to rape her and then gets offended when he says he won’t. This is really damaging because it reinforces the misconception that women secretly enjoy unwanted advances and also romanticizes and normalizes rape. All of these instances reinforce inaccurate and damaging stereotypes about women.
Early Middle Ages (c. 500-1000)