An Arthurian and Fanciful Trio!
By Kristin Battestella
Yes, I'm still waiting for a definitive Camelot film. Fortunately, be it Arthurian high notes or medieval fantasy and more magical swashbucklers, there's fanciful fun for one and all with this trio of enchanting, classic tales.
Camelot – Richard Harris (The Field), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Queen of Scots), and Franco Nero (Django) star in this 1967 adaptation of the Lerner and Lowe stage musical complete with rousing overtures, smokey battle soliloquies, a de-aging backwards Merlin, and charming fairytale adventure. Sure, the cardboard looking trees and plastic snow are dated, but the award winning design, sixties hairstyles, and hippie-esque costumes somehow remain fittingly ye olde. Horses, castles, and medieval interiors add flair amid dancing spectaculars and a small but bemusing cast. They are having a good time, and why not? The sing song talking, full blown chorales, and uneven vocals make everything seem a lot more fun than the actual 5th century England really was, but that over the top lightheartedness and self aware humor matches the fanciful. The “C'est Moi” introduction ridiculously captures Lancelot's full of himself righteousness, and nostalgic adults can catch the innuendo of “The Lusty Month of May” while young audiences enjoy the innocent fun – an aria for the concept of a round table! Three hours can occupy kids for sure, but the singing exposition and disjointed storytelling can irritate older viewers without a childhood affinity for this tale both serious and Robin Hood: Men in Tights in its overlong indulgence, unbalanced direction, and weak ending. This sweeping storybook stage style doesn't always play well onscreen and the musical entrapment is ultimately unnecessary, leaving the dramatic moments as the best here. Though the jovial is more important than interweaving a complete Arthurian recounting, the once sunny and snow white symbolism turns visually darker as the politics escalate inevitably. Despite the musical imperfections, young and old can enjoy the highlights here with sword in the stone fondness, knights of the round table drama, and meddling Mordred conflicts.
Crossed Swords – This two hour 1978 swashbuckler based on Mark Twain 16th century switcharoo boasts an all-star cast including Charlton Heston, Raquel Welsh, Oliver Reed, George C. Scott, Ernest Borgnine, Sybil Danning, and Rex Harrison. Stirring Maurice Jarr scoring accents the chases, sword fights, fun faire peasantry, and quaint village while the colorful court and sweet ladies frocks add period fancy. Despite historical names like Edward, Henry VIII, and Norfolk, the coming and going cameos anchor the youth-centric lookalike fantasy, over the top whimsical, and sardonic flavor befitting of the novel's social lessons. Brief split screen effects blend seamlessly, carrying the uneven design, which looks elaborate in some scenes and cheap in others. Mark Lester's acting isn't perfect, either – he's stuck still playing a child's role and comes off as a simpleton whether he is the prince or the pauper. Shouldn't one or the other be shrewd or charismatic? Ironically, that lacking in grace fits both the street urchin with no upbringing and the coddled royal. Had Lester done this ten years prior following Oliver! his performance would have been perfect. Yes, liberties are taken here and the pace between its subjects drags. However, it is surprising this did poorly when today every intellectual property is unabashedly twisted into a big money American teen absurdity. Producer Ilya Salkind is clearly capitalizing on his Musketeer success with this literary adventure for kids complete with the same adult stars. Modern parents may find the overlong time tough to take seriously despite mature moments and a wild finish – but this isn't meant to be a sophisticated drama. This is The Parent Trap for boys wrapped up in a medieval ball of fun. I mean, the jester is in red and green harlequin with bells, go with it.
Excalibur – Although I still need a Lord of the Rings caliber Arthur, this 1981 epic swelling with the Lady of the Lake, the Sword in the Stone, and the Holy Grail came out of a failed Tolkien adaptation. Go figure. Fiery orange and hellish battles accent the divine forests, waterfalls, and Irish locations. However the dark and looking low budget design is of its time with confusing action and corny jousting. Glowing reflections on the shiny armor, red lighting, and a green sheen upon the swords feel lightsaber influenced, but the medieval costumes, mystical fog, and colorful interiors lift the mature yet fanciful. While extended nudity and Arthur's birth may add that extra twenty on the two hour and twenty minute length, the often skipped Uther and Igrayne trickery is frankly addressed – even if it is director John Boorman's (Deliverance) daughter Katrine playing Igrayne. Awkward! Rousing and familiar classical music anchors the magical moments, but the otherwise limp scoring contributes to a clunky middle. This isn't as timeless or fantastic as it should be despite a generally complete script combining Mallory and other Arthurian sources for a linear birth, life, and death retelling. Lots of now big names are here, too – including Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, and Liam Neeson – however Nigel Terry's (Caravaggio) clipped delivery and over the top stage style is an odd choice for Arthur. Mumbling dialogue and fancy names make subtitles a must, but Nicol Williamson (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) is a fun sage as Merlin while Helen Mirren as Morgana is an alluring villainess. Ironically, her antagonism is better than the core love triangle and a meh Nicholas Clay (Lady Chatterley's Lover) as Lancelot. This is firmly a fantasy not going for historical accuracy, yet the gritty and adult tone paints a not so pretty picture of mysticism versus religion, self versus duty, and messianic reflections upon mistakes befitting of the legend. It takes several watches and one has to be in the right mood for the duration, but the not always magical and mature drama captures the moral of the tale.