Blu-ray: ‘Camelot’ is Lavish and Lumbering

Camelot (Warner), the 1967 musical epic starring Richard Harris as King Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as a flower-child Guenevere, is considered a classic by many and a disaster by others. I’m in that other camp.

The original 1960 Broadway production of the musical version of the King Arthur legend by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe was a smash hit turned cultural touchstone, associated forever with the idealism and youth of the John F. Kennedy. But by the time it came to the big screen in 1967, the old studio system was breaking down and youth culture was challenging establishment tastes. The movie version, directed by Broadway veteran and musical specialist Joshua Logan, tried to straddle the gap between old-fashioned Hollywood musical spectacle and the energy and color and themes of sixties culture. The resulting compromise is big and ungraceful and plodding, a lumbering three-hour spectacle.

Richard Harris, famous for playing rebellious, rough-hewn characters, took over the role of King Arthur (originated by Richard Burton) with a mix of regal dignity and working-class origins and Vanessa Redgrave brought youth and unapologetic sexuality to Guenevere (played by Julie Andrews on stage).

Italian actor Franco Nero, however, is neither a charismatic romantic lead nor much a singer as the conceited and sincere Lancelot, the night that captures Guenevere’s heart. He’s just one tone-deaf element to the simplistic take on the Arthurian myth. Lavishly mounted, with magnificent sets and costumes and castle backdrops, it’s also clumsily directed and haphazardly edited, alternately lighthearted and heavy-handed, often in the same scene. And while it has its fans, the bloated, overlong production was a huge financial flop and helped kill the old-fashioned musical.

The Blu-ray release features commentary by film historian Stephen Farber and two well made (if overly admiring) documentary featurettes among the supplements, and comes in an illustrated Blu-ray book case with a soundtrack sampler CD.

More Blu-ray releases at Videodrone

Playing For Time – The Holocaust in Human Dimensions

Playing For Time (Olive Films)

Television has offered epic portraits of the Holocaust, notably the excellent 1978 mini-series Holocaust. This 1980 TV movie, based on the memoir by Holocaust survivor Fania Fénelon and scripted for television by Arthur Miller, is a far more intimate drama and one of the most powerful TV events of its era.

Robin Bartlett, Vanessa Redgrave and Marisa Berenson

Vanessa Redgrave was a controversial choice to play the French nightclub singer in Auschwitz (this was a few years after her notorious pro-PLO speech at the Oscars) but her performance is a triumph of dignity and desperation, strength and weakness, resolve and guilt, as she sings for her survival as a member of a makeshift women’s orchestra made up of prisoners. The scene where Fania is brought in from the barracks to “audition” for the orchestra with a song from “Madame Butterfly” presents the simple but profound contradictions that run through the entire film. Weak and frail from the work details and starvation rations, Fania tentatively picks out the melody on a grand piano glaringly out of place in this anonymous building filled with reflexively obedient women. As her voice comes in clear and full of ache and emotion, their heads (all instinctively lowered, so as not to make eye contact with the German officer in the room) slowly rise, and their eyes open, awestruck and moved beyond their expectations by this beauty cutting through the horror of their circumstances for a brief moment.

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