Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: director Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword reminds us of the wide range of approaches that filmmakers have taken towards staging the Matter of Britain across the decades. It gives me great pleasure to spend a full week delving into some of the many other flavors of King Arthur films that have preceded Ritchie's contemporary stab at the material.

When I declare that the 1967 film version of Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe's Camelot is the best of director Joshua Logan's cinematic musicals, I want it be clear what a hugely relative claim that is. The competition, after all, is his merciless butchery of South Pacific in 1958, turning one of Rodgers & Hammerstein's finest collaborations into a grisly butcher shop of color filters and incompatible performances, and the famously dire 1969 Paint Your Wagon, clumsily staging musical numbers in the Oregon woods and forcing Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin to cough-sing their way through indifferent new songs wedged into Lerner & Loewe's score. Even then, Camelot might be the more disappointing movie - it wastes much better material than Paint Your Wagon - but at least it's not humiliating.

At least, it's as not-humiliating as possible for the film that essentially killed off Old Hollywood by virtue of being such a misbegotten production. The 1960s were an age of bloated super-musicals: some, like The Sound of Music, were major successes. Some, like Camelot's fellow 1967 release Doctor Dolittle, were absolutely not. Camelot fell squarely into the latter camp, but where 20th Century Fox was able to bully Doctor Dolittle into the vague appearance of success thanks to nine of the least-deserved Oscar nominations  in history, Camelot's failure effectively broke Warner Bros. The film's notorious historical position started with being produced by studio founder and namesake Jack L. Warner himself, with Warner-the-man convinced that in the uncertain times of the 1960s, marked by social upheaval and war, this kind of spectacular family entertainment (with its famous connection to the late, lamented President John F. Kennedy) was just the panacea that the country needed. Presumably, the three-year-old success of Warner Bros' film production of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady was also at the forefront of Jack's mind. At any rate, he fussed over the movie closely, allowing the budget to get quite out of hand, and generally ignoring the rest of the studio's production; most notably, he remained largely indifferent to the creation of a super-violent crime picture influenced by French art cinema under the Warner name, Bonnie and Clyde. When he did encounter that movie, his response was unmitigated hostility and an attempt to bury Bonnie and Clyde alive at more or less exactly the time that Camelot was failing to impress anybody. For so flagrantly misreading the tenor of the culture, as Bonnie and Clyde proceeded to be a massive hit that saved the studio from plunging off a cliff in the wake of the Camelot overruns, Jack L. Warner was forced to leave his own company, the last of the Warner brothers to survive just long enough to see the birth of a brand new American film industry.

The point being, anyway, is that Camelot's pretty lousy. It certainly doesn't need to be. The 1960 show is one of the peaks of Lerner & Loewe's career, not quite up to the level of My Fair Lady, but good enough to hold its own. It boasted a holy trinity in the lead roles, with Richard Burton playing the idealistic King Arthur, Julie Andrews as the lustful Queen Guenevere, and Robert Goulet as the brave, deeply conflicted knight Sir Lancelot. In every case, the movie trades down: Richard Harris comes on to play Arthur (Burton turn down the role), Vanessa Redgrave takes over Guenevere (Andrews was too expensive, and Logan didn't like her anyway), Franco Nero - and the singing voice of Gene Merlino - jumped in as Lancelot. All three are liabilities, though not to the same degree, and not for the same reasons.

In honesty, calling Harris a "liability" is a bit unfair. While his approach to the songs is breathy and unmelodic compared to Burton on the original cast recording, he's clearly invested in the role, throwing himself headlong into the passionate moralism that dominates this particular version of the Camelot story. In the opening scene, he hops around with grinning abandon, managing to not wholly humiliate himself by playing Arthur as a silly, overeager, nervous boy-man. As the film progresses, and the tone grows overcast with darkness and loss, Harris's passion shades into desperation and impotent fury and fatigue (and more than a bit of hamminess, though I very much doubt that Burton's full performance would have been denuded of any scenery-chewing). It's just about exactly what the material requires as drama, and it's not like the musical numbers were going to survive the choppy, crudely stylised treatment the director drops on them, so Harris's relatively unexceptional vocal delivery just doesn't matter much. The problems the film suffers on account of the actor's presence was all behind the scenes: by all accounts, Harris was a miserable SOB, making Redgrave's time on set hell, picking endless fights with Warner, and making the whole production more of an ordeal than it necessarily had to be.

Anyway, the film is the second movie taking its cues not from Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, nor from simply the concept of something out there called "the legend of King Arthur", but from the most effective 20th Century version of the story: T.H. White's fantasy novel The Once and Future King, published in pieces between 1938 and 1941, then as a whole, unified text with altered sequences and a new final section in 1958. The other movie based on White's text was the 1963 Disney animated feature The Sword in the Stone, which largely mined White only for his anachronistic humor; it falls to Lerner's Camelot script (based on the book he wrote for the stage version) to capture something of the actual point of the novel. For White, writing during the Second World War and revising in the woozy psychological wake of that conflict, the details of the Arthur myth cycle were a perfect fit for his pacifist beliefs in the proper role of government and national leaders, and his Arthur was a man greatly tormented by the desire to do Right in a world that only respects Might. Camelot necessarily presents a reduced, summary version of that content - White's novel is, incidentally, one of the highlights of modern fantasy writing and I couldn't possibly be more enthusiastic in pushing it on each and every one of you (though I would say that the original 1938 text of The Sword in the Stone is a bit better than the '58 revised version) - but it gets enough of the message intact that there's more reason for the show to exist than "do you like King Arthur? Would you like him even more if he sang about the weather?"

That's for the show to exist, you understand. For the movie, there is virtually no reason to exist at all, and the best one that could have been managed - recording Julie Andrews's performance for posterity - has been denied to us. Instead, Camelot achieves only the disappointing victory of turning a lovely show with some rock-solid songs into a leaden, exhausting march through gorgeous locations that smother the material rather than give it a space to come to life. In effect, if not in practice, it's very much like the stuffy slog of Warner's My Fair Lady, though at least that movie refrained from fucking up the musical numbers so thoroughly as Camelot does (it is an undying frustration to me that Lerner & Loewe's original movie musical Gigi, distinctly weaker as a story and collection of songs than My Fair Lady and Camelot, should be so enormously superior to either of them as a work of cinema). Impressively, Logan manages to fuck them up in all sorts of different ways, too. "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight", the puckish little number of Arthur's that opens the show, crushes the humor of the number underneath flat-footed editing; "Camelot" is weirdly staged to put Guenevere's back huge in the frame for a full half of the song; "The Lusty Month of May" devolves into a series of crappy shot fragments showcasing Redgrave's gritted-teeth attempts to frolic gaily. Every time Lancelot sings, the gulf between Nero's mouth and the words he's supposed to be saying plunges the film right into "shitty dub of a Japanese monster movie" territory. The most unacceptable of all is the second-act love ballad "If Ever I Would Leave You", with its slow-motion wind machine effects that lead into a dreadful montage of the lovers Lancelot and Guenevere sauntering through a forest, that horrible trope from 1960s romantic movies that makes them all look like 1990s douche commercials (the musical numbers are, in general, drawing from the mid-'60s British films uncertainly copying the aesthetic of the French New Wave).

Considered purely as a retelling of the Arthur myth, Camelot is at least tolerable. The Once and Future King is a particularly strong incarnation of the material, and even in secondhand form (thirdhand?), it works as a study of a king who wishes desperately to be a moral exemplar and is saddened to find that he is instead a human man. Harris's non-musical scenes are generally pretty strong, and particularly as the film goes along, Logan cedes more and more of the film to long, close shots of the actor in hushed sorrow. It fails as a love story, largely on the basis of dispassionate tenor of scenes: no matter how much the film implies that Vanessa Redgrave is 90% naked onscreen, there's no eroticism sparked when one of her scene partners is Harris, for whom she has ill-disguised impatience, and the other is Nero (Redgrave's future husband; they started sleeping together on this very shoot) , whose Lancelot is a goofy cartoon smudge, a lusty Frenchman who speaks with a pronounced Italian accent by an actor who can't figure out what to do with his character's inconsistent sense of guilt and religiosity (to be fair, that's baked into Camelot as a stage play, and the movie was never going to go about solving the play's problems, or even acknowledging their existence).

For the most part, the film isn't terrible. The sets (many of them found locations) are gorgeous, the costumes are fanciful without being obviously inauthentic - John Truscott was responsible for the design of both - and unlike a whole hell of a lot of '60s epics in all genres, it's not so flatly overlit by cinematographer Richard H. Kline as to leave everything looking plasticky and fake. It's pretty badly cut - the musical numbers most obviously, but there are plenty of times in the regular scenes where an angle will be dropped in to no point, and during Arthur's great big emotional release near the film's climax, the camera jumps forward from medium shot to close-up and in so doing completely scuttles the emotional weight of a critical scene. By late-'60s musical standards, it's no particular disaster: I mean, Doctor Dolittle was just weeks in the future when Camelot opened. By comparison, this is positively functional. But the material deserves more: the stage musical, the White novel, the Arthur legendarium. I would not want for any individual movie to strike the killing blow for the Warner Bros. that was, but it's hardly any surprise that the stilted bore Camelot was capable of doing it.