The story of the marriage of England's King Arthur to Guinevere is played out amid the pagentry of Camelot. The plot of illegitimate Modred to gain the throne and Guinevere's growing attachment to Sir Lancelot, whom she at first abhors, threaten to topple Arthur and destroy his "round table" of knights who would use their might for right.
After the arranged marriage of Arthur and Guinevere, the king gathers the noble knights of the realm to his Round Table. The dashing and stalwart Lancelot joins, but soon finds himself enraptured by the lovely Guinevere. When Arthur's illegitimate son, Mordred, reappears in the kingdom and outs the secret lovers, Arthur finds himself trapped by his own rules into taking action against his wife and closest friend.
Merlin taught King Arthur well. He establishes the perfect kingdom of Camelot, the best knights in the world at the Round Table, and even finds himself a kind, loving wife in Queen Guenevere. Then, along comes the French knight, Lancelot. At first hated by all, he eventually proves himself and becomes the King's best friend and the best knight of the Round Table. He also becomes the Queen's lover, no matter how guilty both feel. Alas, Camelot cannot last! For Mordred, the king's treacherous illegitimate son, catches on, and works to undo everything Arthur worked for.
The story of the marriage of England's King Arthur to Guinevere. The plot of illegitimate Mordred to gain the throne and Guinevere's growing attachment to Sir Lancelot, threaten to topple Arthur and destroy his "round table" of knights.
- During the opening credits, like the Broadway production, the studio orchestra plays a potpourri overture that features the "Camelot March" and the title song. The action begins in early morning darkness as a chorus sings a few lines from "Guenevere." Arthur (Richard Harris) talks to his unseen teacher, Merlyn (Laurence Naismith), asking him why everything that has happened to them happened. Before a battle begins at dawn with Lancelot (Franco Nero) and his Joyous Gard knights, Arthur, talking as much to himself as to Merlyn, tries to determine where he went wrong. Merlyn appears and urges the mighty King to think back to one of the most important days of his life. Almost all of the rest of the film is a flashback. It first flashes back to Arthur as a youngster (Nicholas Beauvy); he is walking in the woods in the early morning when he encounters Merlyn, who calls Arthur "Wart." Then suddenly, Merlyn interrupts to chide Arthur for going too far back in his memory. The important day Arthur is supposed to remember, Merlyn says, is the day he met Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave).
The following scene shows Arthur in a large snow-laden tree watching people pass on the road beneath. From his perch, Arthur sings "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?" He imagines that his subjects are pondering what he is doing in the final hours before his arranged marriage. Arthur admits that even though he has faced battle bravely, he's terrified of facing his bride-to-be. As the song ends, a procession approaches ("Camelot March") carrying Guenevere. She is not at all thrilled that her wedding is an inconvenient marriage of convenience. In despair, Guenevere sings "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood." The lyrics question how she missed the normal life of a maiden and all its simple pleasures like knights tilting for her and "kith not kill their kin" for her. The procession halts for a rest so the royal hairdresser can prepare Guenevere to meet her mate. While everyone is busy, Guenevere sneaks away into the woods. She kneels in the snow and prays (sings) to St. Genevieve, her patron saint. Arthur, who is listening from a nearby tree, steps on a rotten branch and falls to the ground. Startled, Guenevere starts to run away, but Arthur promises he won't harm her and asks her not to leave. When Guenevere expresses her reluctance to go through with this arranged marriage, Arthur claims Camelot is unique and in the song, "Camelot," describes the joys of life in his kingdom, including an extremely equitable climate. He claims it is an excellent place to live happily forever. When some of Arthur's attendants and Guenevere's entourage find them, Guenevere is shocked to discover that Wart is the King. Once all the attendants withdraw, Arthur tells Guenevere the story of how, at the age of eighteen, he pulled the sword from the stone and became king. He admits he never wanted to be king, but when he saw her for the first time, he wanted to be the wisest, most heroic, most splendid king who ever sat on any throne. Arthur offers to find someone to accompany her back home, but she slowly and tenderly sings a short reprise of "Camelot," which was her way of agreeing to marry him. As they enter the city, a chorus sings a reprise of the song, which continues through their wedding ceremony.
Four years later, Arthur laments to Jenny that England is made up of a mess of ill-begotten kingdoms ruled by immoral lords. He tells her that might shouldn't always mean right. After a considerable amount of thinking to himself and talking to Jenny, Arthur formulates the idea of creating a new order of chivalry where might is only used for right. Jenny is skeptical that knights would ever agree to do peaceful things, so Arthur decides to make it a great honor to be in the order. To avoid jealousies and superiority, Arthur further decides to use a round table so there is no head. Then in a reprise of the melody of "Camelot," Arthur and Guenevere sing about spreading the word of this new order of knighthood. As the song continues to play in the orchestra, heralds and carrier pigeons are dispatched to carry the news.
Soon the first recruits arrive at Camelot. When news of Arthur's new knighthood order reaches France, Lancelot du Lac sings a short reprise of "Camelot" from his castle walls as he fervently anticipates going to England to join Arthurs order. That short reprise segues into the song "C'est Moi!" Lancelot, who is far from modest, intends to use his considerable invincibility to serve the Round Table. He claims to be so pure, so godly, that if he had been Eve's partner they would still be in Eden. During the song he embarks on his journey to England. When he nears Arthur's castle, he dismounts, kneels and praises Arthur for creating a new order of life.
Suddenly, a horseman rides by so closely that Lancelot topples over. He quickly gets up and challenges the horseman to a fight and knocks him off his horse; it is King Arthur. Once Lancelot realizes that he almost killed the King, he begs Arthur's forgiveness, but Arthur congratulates Lancelot for his fighting skills. Arthur wants to knight him immediately, but Lancelot begs to be allowed to prove himself first. A bit embarrassed, Arthur tells Lancelot that since it is the beginning of May the Queen and the Court have "gone a-Maying." Lancelot is incredulous that knights are doing such civilized things as attending picnics and gathering flowers.
Guenevere and the Knights and Ladies of the Court are thoroughly enjoying the spring weather. In "The Lusty Month of May," Guenevere recommends defiance of gentility in deference to giving in to ones amorous whims. The Knights and Ladies join her song and perform a spirited dance. At the end of the song, the revelers see an elderly man in rusty armor in the woods. He appears to be lost, so they offer assistance. The old man introduces himself as King Pellinore (Lionel Jeffries). He has mislaid his kingdom and can't find his way back. When Pellinore learns he is in Camelot, he remembers having spent a lovely day there years ago with a young lad name Wart. Guenevere informs Pellinore that Wart is now King Arthur of England and her husband. The Queen invites the old fellow to spend the night so he can see Arthur again. Pellinore quickly accepts; he hasn't slept in a bed since he left whatever the name of his kingdom was.
Shortly after Pellinore leaves, Arthur arrives and introduces Guenevere to Lancelot. When the King asks Lancelot to explain some of the plans they have been discussing, Lancelot can't believe a woman would find the details of chivalry interesting. Guenevere assures him that she never tires of anything chivalrous. Lancelot proceeds to explain a training program for knights, but quickly points out that he would never expect any of the knights to live by his exalted standards of physical and spiritual perfection. When Lancelot claims to have achieved physical perfection, Guenevere doubts his boasts. She also questions his spiritual quest since he obviously has no humility.
When Arthur and Lancelot depart, Guenevere begins to plot to have the three best jousters challenge Lancelot. The Queen sings "Then You May Take Me to the Fair" while she visits with Sir Lionel, Sir Sagramore and Sir Dinadan (Gary Marshal, Peter Bromilow, & Anthony Rogers respectively) individually to incite each of them to teach Lancelot a lesson. Pellinore doesn't trust anyone who doesn't drink, doesn't have a lady and talks to nobody but God and the King. He can hardly wait to see if the Frenchman's claims of physical prowess can withstand the three knights in the joust the next day. When Pellinore retires for the evening, Arthur discovers that the Queen has agreed to allow the three Knights to carry her kerchief in the tournament. Exasperated, he begs her to withdraw her permission, but she refuses unless he commands as King.
When she exits, Arthur curses Merlyn for not teaching him how a ruler rules a Queen. He paces and sings "How to Handle A Woman" as he tries to remember Merlyn's advice pertaining to women. He finally remembers: "The way to handle a woman is to love her." The following day the jousting arena has a circus-like atmosphere. Lancelot easily defeats all three knights and appears to kill Sir Lionel with his jousting lance. Jenny rushes to Lionel's side. Lancelot cradles his defeated rival in his arms, weeps, bows his head in prayer and begs over and over again for the lifeless body to live. Suddenly, Lionel gasps for breath. Guenevere walks over to Lancelot and kneels before him with her hand over her heart, weeping over his rescue of her from the guilt of having caused Sir Lionel's death. Lancelot then kneels and kisses her hand. The look on Arthur's face suggests that he instinctively senses his wife's and Lancelot's mutual attraction. As Lancelot rises and walks away, the entire crowd kneels in homage to him for resurrecting Sir Lionel. The next few scenes show Guenevere sleeplessly thinking about Lancelot, Lancelot in torment as he thinks about Guenevere, and Arthur talking to Pellinore about being in love. When Lancelot comes to Jenny's room expecting to find Arthur, he can't hide his feelings for her and she confesses her feelings for him. Arthur interrupts when he arrives to inform Lancelot that he has proved himself worthy of being knighted.
After a very regal knighting ceremony, Arthur walks into an adjacent room where he ponders what to do about the problem he senses. He readily admits that if he could choose any woman on earth, it would be Jenny. He also admits that if he could choose any man on earth as his brother, his son, or his friend, it would be Lancelot. He loves both of them, but he feels they must be punished for betraying his trust. At first, Arthur wants vengeance, but when his temper subsides, he realizes that it would not be civilized to destroy what he loves. He also begins to sense their pain and torment. Since they are both completely devoted to him and the Round Table, Arthur resolves that they will face whatever the future holds together. The Intermission comes at this point with Entracte music featuring an orchestral version of "Camelot."
As the action commences again, Lancelot bests another knight in a sword fight. The defeated knight accuses him of having been the Queen's lover for years. Lance demands the knight defend his accusation, but the knight stands by his statement. Later, Lance and Jenny sneak into a secret garden for a clandestine meeting. Lance assures her that Arthur knows about them and, therefore, will never leave the castle without one of them with him. Lancelot realizes that he should leave at once and never return, but in "If Ever I Would Leave You," he sings that the right moment never comes. Jenny feels a great deal of shame and guilt, but can't help remembering their past (while the orchestra plays more of the song, the film shows several significant scenes of their romance which apparently spans years; when Lancelot sings again, there are appropriate scenes for the seasons of the year that match the lyrics to the song). At the end of the song, they are back in the present and they embrace.
Pellinore tells Arthur if he does not face the truth his Round Table is doomed (the King has been banishing every knight who accuses his wife and Lancelot of adultery). Suddenly, they are interrupted by a pompous young fellow named Mordred (David Hemmings). Arthur seems to be shaken when he learns the man's name because he realizes the young man is the son of a woman with whom he had a one-night stand, Queen Morgause of Orkney, making him Arthur's illegitimate son. Arthur invites Mordred to become a Knight of the Round Table, but the unpleasant youngster quickly admits to detesting swords, spears and horses and he is suspicious of virtues.
Mordred has come to Camelot after discovering he is Arthur's bastard son in hopes of gaining the throne for himself. Lancelot advises Arthur that Mordred is trying to destroy the Round Table and is raising an army consisting of the banished knights, but the King is already aware of Mordred's deceitfulness. Lancelot wants to kill him, but Arthur forbids it. Arthur continues to hope that somehow he can make his only son worthy of the throne. After Lancelot leaves, Arthur tells Jenny he needs to talk about trivial things. This wish leads into the song "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" When Arthur says the simple folk find relief in whistling, he and Jenny try it, but quickly give up in frustration. Then when Arthur describes a young lad who sings when he is sad, they launch into a happy madrigal-style song. That doesn't work either. Next, Arthur says he had heard that the simple folk dance a fiery dance until their minds are blank. So they spin and twirl, but dancing is no more of a cure than whistling or singing. By the end of the dance they are distraught that these peasant remedies haven't work to relieve their strain Arthur can't escape the problems of ruling England and Guenevere can't forget Lancelot or abandon Arthur. In the following scene, Mordred's army arrives to battle the remaining Knights of the Round Table. During the fight, the Round Table itself is broken into pieces. Arthur and Lancelot watch helplessly in disbelief. Arthur leaves while the fight continues and goes into the legendary forest where Merlyn schooled him.
The song "Follow Me" is sung by an off-screen chorus as the King rediscovers some of the woodland creatures that Merlyn had taught him about many years before. When he pretends to be Wart again, he imagines that Merlyn is there. Arthur and Wart, who is suddenly standing in front of Arthur, ask Merlyn for a remedy for sadness. Merlyn tells him (or them) to learn something. A little later, Merlyn turns Arthur (or Wart) into a fish and a hawk to help him learn (the film audience doesn't actually see a fish or a hawk). Arthur's lesson is interrupted by Mordred's arrival in the forest. Mordred continues his wickedness by slyly accusing the Queen and Lancelot of deception and infidelity. To test Lancelot's and Guenevere's loyalty, Mordred convinces Arthur to remain in the forest all night. Mordred returns to the court to tell them that Arthur will be hunting all night and will return by mid-morning the next day. Shortly after Mordred delivers his message, Lancelot visits Guenevere in her chambers and begs her to go away with him. Even though she loves Lancelot, the Queen still loves Arthur and is determined to stay with him as long as he wants her. Under those circumstances, Lancelot promises never to ask her to leave again and promises to never come to her again. Jenny similarly swears and she and Lancelot sing "I Loved You Once in Silence." As the song concludes, they kiss and walk together wrapped in each other's arms.
Mordred and several knights confront them and accuse them of treason. Lancelot manages to escape, but Guenevere is captured. As Lancelot rides away, he encounters Arthur, who is attempting to return to the castle before something happens. Arthur immediately senses the truth and Lancelot covers his face in shame. When Arthur returns to the castle, he stands by helplessly as Guenevere is lead away to prison. An unseen chorus sings "Guenevere," which narrates what happens in her trial and sentencing to be burned at the stake. As preparations for her sentence are being carried out, the chorus questions if Lancelot will be able to save her. Early in the morning Guenevere is marched to the stake. Everyone except Mordred hopes for her rescue. Mordred, on the other hand, mocks Arthur by saying, "Let her die, your life is over. Let her live, your life's a fraud. Kill the Queen or kill the law."
Just as the fire is touched to the wood, Lancelot and the knights of the Joyous Gard arrive. Arthur is tremendously relieved! Mordred is pleased to see Lancelot and his troops slaughtering Arthur's knights. Lancelot rescues Guenevere and heads for the channel to take her to France. Lance sends a note asking Arthur to meet him in the forest at sunup (this section returns to the film's opening when Arthur is in pre-dawn darkness). Lancelot and Guenevere offer to return to England to face their punishment, but Arthur will not allow Guenevere to be burned at the stake or Lancelot to be beheaded. Instead, he urges Lance to take Jenny to Joyous Gard where she will be safe. Lancelot informs him that she has joined a convent. Arthur bids them goodbye, and seems to have forgiven them.
As Arthur returns to his camp to prepare for battle, he encounters a young boy named Tom - the future Sir Thomas Malory, who really existed and who wrote "L'Morte d'Arthur", the definitive text on the King Arthur legend in 1471. The boy has only heard stories of the Knights of the Round Table, but those tales have inspired him to want to become a knight. Arthur is encouraged that the ideals of Camelot and the Round Table live on in this young lad. So he orders the lad to return to England to perpetuate the ideals of chivalry and tell future generations that once there was "a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot" (Arthur sings his orders in a reprise of "Camelot"). When Pellinore arrives with Arthur's sword, Excalibur, Arthur knights Tom and orders him to return home and carry out his orders. Arthur feels victorious. What he accomplished with the Knights of the Round Table and his civilized government will be remembered. As the closing credits scroll across the screen, a chorus sings a climactic reprise of "Camelot." The Exit Music consists of an instrumental version of "Camelot."