Camelot: Then and Now

How has the timeless story of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot changed over the years to reflect the time period(s) that they are recreated in? From the Medieval period to the 1960’s, the legend of Camelot has been repurposed to push agendas or teach morals that the populous of the world needs to hear. While the 1967 film, Camelot, is a retelling of one of history and literature’s most famous love triangles, it has to do with so much more than love. It also has to do with love and loyalty to country, what justice is, the roles of females in society, and so many other important questions that we still think about today. A lot of the Arthurian texts of the Medieval Ages also touch on these subjects. I chose to do the project on this film and musical because it is a great retelling of the Arthurian legend that keeps intact some of the most important points that the original Arthurian texts brought up.

The film was released in 1967 and starred Richard Harris as King Arthur, Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Guinevere, and Franco Nero as Sir Lancelot. It was received with mixed reviews around the world. A critic from Film Quarterly named William Johnson said “Camelot is Hollywood at its worst and best.” All of the actors in the film and the script were praised and celebrated for their performances, though the lavish costumes and settings discredited a lot of the work they did. The movie even got the nickname “costalot” for how much money was spent on silly things, like the dress Guinevere wore for the wedding scene costing $12,000.

The film focuses on the creation of the Round Table and the expansion of Camelot and its Golden Age. The main things the Round Table is created for is to promote justice and doing the right things. Arthur is trying to redefine chivalry and the code of chivalry. He wants to move away from the notion that the power should use their power to only benefit themselves. He believes that knights should use their power to help others and bring peace to all the land. He tells Guinevere that he wants “Might for right.” She tells him that it is a very original idea and supports his quest to create a brotherhood of knights who congregate to discuss the world’s problems. The movie’s other focus is on the love between King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot. Arthur and Guinevere are married and when Lancelot comes to Camelot, Guinevere falls in love with him as well. There is also a very deep fraternal love between Arthur and Lancelot, with Lancelot being Arthur’s right hand man and best knight. This causes strain in all of their relationships with each other, as Arthur is aware of the affair, but does nothing about it.

When Arthur’s illegitimate son, Mordred, comes to Camelot he wants to see the downfall of Camelot. He catches Guinevere and Lancelot in an intimate moment and, while Lancelot escapes, Guinevere is captured and is put on trial for treason against the King. The whole time Arthur is aware of the affair, but he cannot stop the trial or the guilty verdict because he has spent so long building the justice system. Everyone’s only hope is for Lancelot to save Guinevere, which he does, but all of this leads to Camelot’s downfall and the end of the Knights of the Round Table. The movie ends with Arthur proclaiming to remember what they stood for mainly “Might for right. Right for right. Justice for all.” He realizes that though Camelot may fall, what they created and stood for will live on in history forever.

This film was based off of the stage musical with the same title. The plot and characters are basically the same with a few minor changes. The original broadway cast starred Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Queen Guinevere, and Robert Goulet as Sir Lancelot. One of the main differences from stage to screen is the character of Merlyn. In the film, while he is there, he doesn’t play a huge role and we aren’t sure what happened to him. In the stage musical he is lured into a Nimue’s cave for eternal sleep. There are a few songs that were cut from the film, but the plot is basically the same as the film.

The musical was inspired by T.H White’s novel The Once and Future King, which was inspired by Malory’s Morte DArthur. White’s novel is considered to be one of the most influential modern day pieces of Arthurian literature. Though heavily influenced by Malory, he takes a lot of new ideas and puts them in the four part novel. His novel, though mainly meant for young audiences, can also be read as a critique on the first half of the twentieth century in the Western world.

Through a lot of the Arthurian literature the themes of chivalry and justice. One of the best examples of this is in the story of Sir Launfal which is a retelling of the story of Lanval told by Marie de France. In this story, Launfal is accused of proposing an affair between Queen Guinevere and himself by Guinevere. This is a false accusation, but because she is the queen he has to be tried. Instead of Arthur just choosing his fate, essentially acting as the sole judge, he calls on all of his knights to decide Launfal’s fate, so they act as a rudimentary form of a jury. There is a search for and an attempt at justice.

One of Arthur’s biggest challenges in the film is creating a justice system because he is unhappy with the one, or lack of one, in place. One of the best scenes in the movie that supports this is when he is trying to explain how the system to work to King Pellinore and Pellinore just isn’t comprehending it. Pellinore represents the old ways and though he doesn’t really understand it, he trusts and supports Arthur. Of course because of the justice system, there is no way Arthur can save Guinevere when she is put on trial because he worked so hard to create it and he can’t go against what he believes is right. It’s interesting to see how something so morally right, can basically lead to the downfall of the whole kingdom.

The term Camelot has become synonymous with the Kennedy presidency in the United States. Peter L. Hays in his article The Classical and Current Tragedy of Camelot discusses how The Original Cast Recording of Camelot was one of JFK’s favorite things to listen to and how that was publicized after his death. He states that his favorite lines were these from the final number, “Don’t let it be forgot. That once there was a spot. For one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.” Hays states “It was obviously Kennedy’s wish that he could create a Camelot that would live on in history as a shining moment.” While the musical wasn’t made because of the Kennedy presidency, it reflects a lot of Western ideals during the time. It was written not long after World War Two and during the Vietnam War. Wanting a peaceful land that promotes justice and doing what is right was the goal of a lot of the world at the time.

When Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte DArthur, he was also writing in the context of history, like Lerner and Lowe. Malory probably wrote this as social commentary on The War of the Roses in England. It was the English Civil War that took place from 1455-1485 between the House of York and House of Lancaster. Malory’s Le Morte DArthur is probably the most famous and influential piece of Arthurian legend, and it was also the first comprehensive piece of Arthurian literature that was written in prose. It is the basis for almost all of the Arthurian literature and legend that is created today. It’s really interesting to think of the parallels that these pieces that were written almost 500 years apart from each other have in common. This proves that the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is one of the most important and relatable in history. In the depths of tragedy and war, it provides a beacon of hope that one day there will be another time of peace and prosperity.

One of the most prominent changes from the Medieval Ages to the 1960’s is women’s roles in society. This is seen obviously in the portrayal of Queen Guinevere. In Kathleen Coyne Kelly’s review of Ulrike Bethlehem’s Guinevere: A Medieval Puzzle: Images of Arthur’s Queen in the Medieval Literature of England and France she states “scholars who attempt to create a coherent picture of Guinevere cannot succeed.” She goes on to say that a lot of Arthurian literature contradicts what Guinevere was used for in terms of literary tools. A lot of scholars can’t pinpoint her purpose in literature. In some earlier Arthurian legend she is pretty horrible. She causes trouble for a lot of people, is dishonest and disloyal to Arthur, and is just a spoiled queen. In Camelot, though still entitled, is no longer the annoyance she is in the earlier writings. She has a pretty substantial character arch in the film that she doesn’t get in any other Arthurian literature. She starts off as a maiden who is being forced into an arranged with King Arthur, not knowing anything about him she laments in her song “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” that because she is getting married there is no longer going to be any excitement for her and men will not fight over her. When she meets Arthur everything changes. She becomes the Queen he needs. She supports him and his ideas, she puts the kingdom first, and loves Arthur and helps him think through all of his revolutionary ideas. She is loyal to him and loves him deeply. The only thing that ever comes between them is Lancelot, and even he doesn’t come between them in a way that makes them love each other less.

Malory’s Le Morte DArthur is the first to introduce Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair. In his version, though, Guinevere is still pretty terrible like the earlier writings of her, though she has a few redeeming qualities and moments. She is very tempermental in Malory’s version, she frequently throws Lancelot out when he does something that angers her. She is also very hostile up to the point when she needs him for something. Like the film, their relationship is the downfall of Camelot. In Le Morte Mordred and Agravaine (who was cut from the film) trap Lancelot and Guinevere in the same fashion that Mordred does in the film. Again, Lancelot escapes and has to save Guinevere. Unlike the film, many more characters are involved in the fight and many people end up dead, which is more of the reason the Round Table falls in the story. Many knights are killed in the rescuing of Guinevere. In both the film and book, Guinevere goes to live in a convent after being rescued by Arthur rather than living with Lancelot because she feels so guilty and sinful for her actions. This redeems her a lot, even though maybe she didn’t need to be as redeemed as people thought she needed to be during those times. The only time she was unloyal to Arthur was with Lancelot because she loved him. She is human, had it not been the King, she would have never caused this much turmoil. All told, the portrayal of her over the centuries has made her more of a dimensional character than in the past.

Sir Lancelot has also developed a lot from the beginning of Arthurian literature considering he really wasn’t a character at all until Malory. In most Arthurian literature before Malory, Sir Gawain was Arthur’s right hand man. Interestingly enough, Sir Gawain wasn’t included in the film, even though he was a character in both Malory and White’s story. Malory, though, makes Lancelot the most accomplished knight in Camelot and starts the affair between he and Guinevere. Lancelot is still a little bit clueless like he is for Malory. He is praised for how physically dominant he is, but not for his common sense. In the film he is introduced in the song “C’est Moi” where he is singing about how virtuous he is. Before she falls for him, Guinevere makes fun of him and how innocent he is. Asking him if anything has changed with chivalry while she was napping is a great example of this. Though, for all of his virtue, he still commits treason by having an affair with Guinevere. He seems to face the least amount of consequences at the end of the film, though. He is one of the reasons for the fall of the kingdom, but all that happens to him is that he gives up Guinevere and then goes home to France. Arthur dies and Guinevere goes into a convent as well as having to live with the guilt of bringing everything she loves down with her. Lancelot also has to live with the guilt, but nothing really happens to him. Irene Morra in her article Constructing Camelot: Britain and the New World Musical says about Lancelot “By the end, the musical has endorsed Lancelot’s self-valuation; he is a romantic hero whose overwhelming loyalty to the king is challenged by a tragic passion for the beautiful Guinevere.” In a lot of Arthurian literature after Malory, Lancelot is written as the best knight in Camelot and Arthur’s best friend. Malory’s interpretation of Lancelot’s armor is discussed in Disarming Lancelot by Elizabeth Scala. Scala’s article is about how arming scenes in literature symbolize a hero. Putting on armor is a sign that someone is going into battle to, presumably, fight the good fight. Malory puts a twist on this convention with Lancelot. “It is the way Lancelot is disarmed in the Morte DArthur, I will argue, that should be read for its “heroic” signification.” Making Lancelot a fearsome opponent, even without armor, is a very bold statement in a kingdom that is known for having such excellent knights. Through all of his adventures, in all of Arthurian lure, Lancelot never gets defeated. That is one thing that stays consistent over time.

One character who stays pretty consistent over the centuries is King Arthur. He is always noble, always a good king, always a great person. He wants what is best for Camelot and wants his people to be happy and safe and prosperous. Since he is the main character of all Arthurian literature, it is harder to change his character arch. Arthur is a very compelling leader. In the film, Richard Harris does a remarkable job at characterizing this. In a film critique by Roger Ebert from 1967 he says “ Harris is a convincing king. Better still, he’s a human king.” He isn’t good because he is brilliant, or strong, or powerful, but because he is a genuinely good human being. He wants to do the right thing for people and that is the best quality a leader can have. His one downfall is trusting people too much. He trusts Lancelot and Guinevere and that destroys his kingdom, and he trusts Mordred who wants to bring down the kingdom. It also adds a layer of tragedy to the downfall of Camelot because Arthur never did anything wrong. He just wanted to better the world around him and because of hate or love for and by other people, he loses that. That, to me, is the most tragic part of the whole story. King Arthur is the kind of leader that every leader should strive to be. To create ideals that outlast your life, to create a legacy that goes on to change the world is quite a feat. Arthur’s ideals and character are immortalized in the stories we tell of him from the past five hundred years to now.

Leave a Comment