The Death of the Arthur: The Coward Dies a Thousand Deaths

I suddenly remembered I had a copy of David Hemmings’ memoir, Blow-Up and Other Exaggerations. It’s a good book — as always with these celebrity affairs, I find it a little frustrating because I’m more interested in THE SQUEEZE than in GLADIATOR, more interested in JUGGERNAUT than either. And Hemmings is going where his strongest memories lead him, or where his literary agent directs him. But he devotes a lot of time to CAMELOT, which falls nicely into my own Arthurian quest.

In particular, Hemmings’ account of the very start of the shoot is STRIKING.

The scene is the giant set of the Great Hall. Hemmings says:

John [Truscott] had put together a set that was so large that technicians had to squeeze between the real walls and the constructed manifestations of the castle interior. Barely an electrical cable could thread its way through the narrow space between the truth and Truscott’s cinema reality. Naturally, when Jack Warner first saw it, sensitive to the colossal investment he had in it, he growled gently, “Listen, you people, I want to see every fucking inch of this on the screen!”

This is a made way to build a set. Allowing a spare foot along either side lets the crew work faster and safer, and loses nothing in terms of set’s perceivable size,

The scene, then, is set. Cut to the first day of principal photography. The cast and crew are foregathered.

As if on cue, our heads all turned together to watch, appearing from behind the Round Table — yes, the Round Table — the man himself, Joshua Logan. Nedda, his wife, was with him, though, perhaps in recognition of studio etiquette, a little behind him. His figure, like the table itself, was inescapably circular. He was balding, full of face, with a band of tufted hair above his upper lip and chubby cheek add-ons that bulged by his ears like a hamster’s fodder bags. It was popularly rumoured that in these the booze was stored.

[…]

They stood before us silently, also taking in the vast walls of Camelot. Josh seemed lost in a dream for a long moment, drinking in the fantasy, breathing in a sense of movie and the smells of fresh paint and endless stipple, applied as if Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen had been allowed to run amok for a month. Indeed, on closer examination, Camelot was not yet dry, and the fine work-lights picked out the damper spots, making them glitter and sparkle, as we all hoped the movie would, once the shooting was over.

Logan coughed and cleared his throat. He had smoked with true commitment for decades, washing down the nicotine with whisky. His voice was heavy gravel — rubble, even — being poured from a road mixer.

“Well,” he drawled, fiddling with his moustache, “As you can see, this is the Great Hall of Camelot.”

We knew that. He knew that. I wondered, momentarily, if this was his first visit.

“I thought…” He paused for a very long time. “I thought…” he repeated, though now a little hesitantly. “I thought… Richard, that you might come in from the door?”

I wondered which of the seventeen doors available he had in mind.

After a few moments silence, Josh laughed. Moisture seeped onto his brow.

The crew were still poised.

Logan looked around, and where he looked, we all looked. If he was after inspiration, so were we.

Except [Richard] Harris, who stood with an Irish grimace of insolence which only he could have produced.

Vanessa [Redgrave] stared at her feet.

Franco Zero [sic] sneezed as he tugged at a scarf around his neck. He had a cold, but then, he always had a cold. Over the many years since in which I’ve worked with Italians, I’ve come to acknowledge that they do hypochondria very well, and not just on the football field.

As Logan carried on staring nervously around the Great Hall, Harris looked at me with a half-clenched hand tilted to his lips, as if clutching a glass.

Did he mean that he thought Logan had already had a few drinks, or that we should go and fiond some for ourselves?

Logan interrupted my conjecture. “Or,” he said, with directorial emphasis, looking hard at Richard, “maybe we could find you sitting on the throne. After all, you are the King!” He glanced around uneasily for affirmation, waving his outstretched arms in a wide arc that embraced us all. “After all,” he repeated, “you are the King!”

He chuckled deeply, as if he had suddenly, and with great profundity, stumbled across the Holy Grail. But his body language did not confirm it.

[…]

Suddenly Josh turned on me and fixed me with a kind of stare that I only remembered from the playground bullies of my early youth. “And why don’t you…” he said. But before the end of the sentence emerged, his voice trailed off. He wiped his sweaty brow with a quivering hand as he sank into Sir Gawain’s chair at the Round Table with panic in full rout.

Nedda did not move a muscle.

“God!” he cried out suddenly. “God, won’t somebody help me!”

It was clear to me that this was not a wholly well person, whatever his past credits.

I find this fascinating. Nobody really DOES help Logan. Harris and Hemmings take off for the nearest bar. The stink of fear and failure have a repelling effect that apparently conquers all compassion. Having been bullied as a kid, Hemmings presumably knew that weakness does not invite rescue — nobody intervenes between the bully and their prey. In this case, the bully is the entirely impersonal reality of the need to make a film on a schedule, and the prey is the director.

I’ve stood on film sets, much smaller ones, and felt nervous, but this paralysis is mercifully something I never quite experienced. I’m inclined to think that nobody who does react by freezing should be in the job. But I do wish somebody had taken pity on Logan.

Hemmings, by the way, mentions that his character, Mordrid, had one song, but it was cut before shooting. Presumably, having cast non-singers throughout the cast, the production considered Hemmings’ voice and decided it was a step too far. The cut couldn’t have been made for length — the film is LOOOONG, and the song is only about a minute and a half. Here’s Roddy McDowell doing it, from the original Broadway cast recording ~

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4 Responses to “The Death of the Arthur: The Coward Dies a Thousand Deaths”

  1. Which reunited Harris and Hemmings, who had become “almost friends” on Camelot. Drinking buddies, yes, but Hemmings seems to have found something slightly unknowable about RH that prevented closeness.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, this is a good read.

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