In the opening scene, King Arthur (Richard Harris) is preparing for a great battle against his friend, Sir Lancelot (Franco Nero), a battle he does not wish to fight but has been forced into. Arthur reflects on the sad circumstances which have led him to this situation, and asks his childhood mentor, Merlyn, for advice. Merlyn appears to him and tells Arthur to think back.
Arthur thinks back to the night of his marriage to his now-estranged wife, Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave). It is an arranged marriage, and he has never met her before. He is understandably afraid of what lies ahead ("I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight"). His solitude is broken by Guenevere, who has fled from her entourage and enters the same woods he has taken refuge in. Guenevere is also worried about marrying a man she has never met, and longs for the romantic life of a fought-over maiden ("The Simple Joys of Maidenhood"). Overhearing Guenevere and realizing who she is, Arthur accidentally falls out of the tree in which he is hiding. He and Guenevere converse, and as she does not know his true identity, she fantasizes about traveling with him and escaping before his "wretched king" finds her. Arthur tells her what a wonderful place his kingdom is ("Camelot"). She finds herself drawn to him and they almost kiss, but are interrupted by his men and her entourage sent to find her. The king's identity is revealed, and although Arthur gives Guenevere the chance to leave, she gladly goes back with him to be married.
The plot shifts to four years later. Arthur dreams up and explores with Guenevere his idea for a "Round Table" that would seat all the noble knights of the realm, reflecting not only a crude type of democratic ideal, but also the political unification of England. Knights are shown gathering from all over England. Eventually, word of Arthur's Round Table spreads to France. Inspired by Arthur’s ideas, the French knight Lancelot makes his way to England with his squire Dap, boasting of his superior virtues ("C'est Moi"). Lancelot's prowess impresses Arthur, and they become friends; but many of the knights instantly despise Lancelot for his self-righteousness and boasting manner.
Guenevere, who dislikes Lancelot from the moment they meet, incites three of the best knights – Sir Lionel, Sir Sagramore, and Sir Dinadan – to challenge him to a joust ("Then You May Take Me To The Fair"). Arthur ponders this discord and how distant Guenevere has become recently ("How to Handle a Woman"). However, Guenevere's plan goes awry as Lancelot easily defeats all three, mortally wounding Sir Dinadan. A horrified Lancelot pleads for Sir Dinadan to live, and as he lays hands on him, Dinadan miraculously recovers. Guenevere is so overwhelmed and humbled that her feelings for Lancelot begin to change. Despite his vows of celibacy, Lancelot falls in love with Guenevere, leading to the famous love triangle involving Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot. The other knights are aware of the clandestine meetings between Lancelot and Guenevere; they accuse Lancelot repeatedly, and several knights are banished after losing their armed challenges.
Guinevere and Lancelot meet in a secret abandoned garden to discuss the latest accusation, the knight's banishment, and their future. Guenevere does not believe Arthur knows yet, but Lancelot tells her that he does, which causes her much guilt and anguish. Lancelot vows that he should leave and never come back, but finds it impossible to consider leaving Guenevere ("If Ever I Would Leave You").
Arthur knows something is going on between Lancelot and Guenevere, but cannot bring himself to accuse them because he loves them both. He decides to rise above the scandal and ignore it. However, Mordred (David Hemmings), Arthur's illegitimate son from an affair with the Princess Morgause before he was crowned, arrives at Camelot, bitter because Arthur will not recognize him as son and heir. Mordred is determined to bring down the fellowship of the Round Table by stirring up trouble. All this takes its toll on Arthur's disposition, and Guenevere tries to cheer him up ("What Do the Simple Folk Do?"), despite her conflicted emotions.
Mordred cunningly convinces Arthur to stay out hunting all night as a test, knowing Lancelot will visit Guenevere in her bedchamber. Everything happens as Mordred expected, except that Lancelot and Guenevere had intended to make this visit the last time they will see each other. They sing of their forbidden love and how wrong it has all gone ("I Loved You Once In Silence"). But Mordred and several knights are waiting behind the curtains, and they catch the lovers together. Lancelot escapes, but Guenevere is arrested and sentenced to die by burning at the stake, thanks to Arthur's new civil court and trial by jury. Arthur, who has promoted the rule of law throughout the story, is now bound by his own law—he can make no special exceptions for his own wife. "Kill the Queen or kill the law," says Mordred. Preparations are made for Guenevere's burning ("Guenevere"), but Lancelot rescues her at the last minute, much to Arthur's relief. However, many knights are killed, and the knights demand vengeance.
In the film’s final scene, we return to the opening. Arthur is preparing for battle against Lancelot, at the insistence of his knights who want revenge, and England appears headed back into the Dark Ages. Arthur receives a surprise visit from Lancelot and Guenevere, at the edge of the woods, where she has taken residence at a convent. Lancelot asks if there is nothing to be done, but Arthur can think of nothing but to let the events ride out. They clasp arms in farewell and Lancelot leaves. Arthur and Guenevere share an emotional farewell, his heart breaking when he sees that she has had all her glorious hair chopped off. She is beside herself that she may never see him again or know his forgiveness. As daylight is approaching, they must part.
Prior to the battle, Arthur stumbles across a young boy named Tom, who wishes to fight in the battle and become a Knight of the Round Table. Tom espouses his commitment to Arthur's original ideal of "Not might 'makes' right, but might 'for' right." Arthur realizes that, although most of his plans have fallen through, the ideals of Camelot still live on in this simple boy. Arthur knights Tom and gives him his orders—run behind the lines and survive the battle, so he can tell future generations about the legend of Camelot. Watching Tom leave, Arthur regains his hope for the future ("Camelot (reprise)").
Several songs were omitted from the film version: "The Jousts", a choral episode in which the jousts, which occur offstage in the play, are described (in the film they are shown); "Before I Gaze At You Again", sung by Guenevere to an offstage Lancelot; "The Seven Deadly Virtues", sung by Mordred; "Persuasion", sung in a scene not in the film, in which Mordred persuades Morgan Le Fay, who is omitted from the film's screenplay, to conjure up an enchantment to keep Arthur in the forest so that Guenevere and Lancelot's affair can be exposed; and "Fie On Goodness!", sung by the knights, in which they bemoan the fact that they are no longer allowed to administer punishment no matter how inappropriate, but according to the law. Some songs were cut during the original Broadway run of Camelot, because they made the play too long. However, they were restored for the London production starring Laurence Harvey and Elizabeth Larner.
The lyrics of the song "Follow Me", which was sung in the play by the water nymph Nimue to entice Merlyn to her cave, were completely rewritten and the song was sung by an offscreen chorus in a new scene written for the film. Nimue does not appear in the film.Richard Harris as King Arthur
Vanessa Redgrave as Guenevere
Franco Nero as Lancelot du Lac
David Hemmings as Mordred
Lionel Jeffries as King Pellinore
Laurence Naismith as Merlyn
Pierre Olaf as Dap
Estelle Winwood as Lady Clarinda
Gary Marshal as Sir Lionel
Anthony Rogers as Sir Dinadan
Peter Bromilow as Sir Sagramore
Sue Casey as Lady Sibyl
Gary Marsh as Tom of Warwick
Nicolas Beauvy as young Arthur
While the official running time was 179 minutes plus overture, entrance and exit music, only the 70mm blow up prints and 35mm magnetic stereo prints contained that running time. The general release version ran 150 minutes. Cuts were made in dialogue throughout the film and entire stanzas were removed from a number of songs including "C'est Moi" and "What Do the Simple Folk Do?". Omitted scenes include Arthur explaining what he means when he says that Merlyn lives backwards, and the entire flashback of Arthur in the forest recalling Merlyn's schoolhouse.
Television broadcasts and home video versions contain the complete, uncut version of the movie. The shorter general release version has not been seen since the film's 1973 re-release.
The film grossed $31.102 million
William Johnson noted that “some of Arthur’s speeches could be applied directly to Vietnam,” such as Arthur’s “Might for Right” ideal and repeated musings over borderlines. At the same time, Alice Grellner suggested the movie served as “an escape from the disillusionment of Vietnam, the bitterness and disenchantment of the antiwar demonstrations, and the grim reality of the war on the evening television news” and reminder of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
John F. Kennedy's presidency became inextricably linked to Camelot after his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, revealed in a Life article following his assassination that it had been one of his favorite records, particularly the lines “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/that was known as Camelot.” Davidson, in The Reel Arthur, notes that there are no true correspondences between Kennedy and Arthurian characters, which was fortunate considering the film centered around an adulterous love triangle. In creating the association between Kennedy’s presidency and Camelot, Jackie Kennedy connected her husband to the hope, goodness, and glamour of Camelot. She wanted her husband to be remembered as “well-meaning, fallibly human but ultimately idealistic,” devoted to his country’s interests above his own.
The film was the 11th most popular movie of 1967, with over $30 million in ticket sales; rentals returned to Warner Bros., however, weren't enough to show a profit. As of October 2014, Camelot holds a Rotten Tomatoes ranking of 50%. Film Quarterly's William Johnson called Camelot “Hollywood at its best and worst,” praising the film’s ideals and Harris and Redgrave’s performances but bemoaning its lavish sets and three-hour-running time. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Redgrave "dazzling" but criticized the film’s conflicting moods and uncomfortable close-ups. Crowther felt the main characters were not sufficiently fleshed out to evoke any sympathy from the audience, concluding that the filmed lacked "magic".
The film, nominated for five Academy Awards, won three for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (John Truscott, Edward Carrere, John W. Brown), Best Costume Design (John Truscott), and Best Music-Scoring of Music (Adaptation or Treatment) (Alfred Newman, Ken Darby). It was also nominated for Best Cinematography (Richard Kline) and Best Sound. It also won three Golden Globe Awards and was nominated for an additional three.
Richard Harris won the 1968 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"Camelot" – Nominated
- Prelude and Overture - Orchestra
- I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight - Arthur
- The Simple Joys of Maidenhood - Guenevere
- Camelot and the Wedding Ceremony - Arthur, Guenevere, and Chorus
- C'est Moi - Lancelot
- The Lusty Month of May - Guenevere and Women
- Follow Me and Children's Chorus - Chorus
- How to Handle a Woman - Arthur
- Take Me to the Fair - Guenevere, Lionel, Dinadan, Sagramore
- If Ever I Would Leave You - Lancelot
- What Do the Simple Folk Do? - Guenevere and Arthur
- I Loved You Once In Silence - Guenevere
- Guenevere - Chorus
- Finale Ultimo - Arthur and Tom