Yet another revisionist take on the fabled existence of King Arthur's Camelot - this time loosely based on Chretien de Troyes Arthurian accounts, Jerry Zucker's First Knight (1995) is a stunningly beautiful romance/action movie that treads lightly on the Arthurian legacy.
The film's central shortcoming is not to be found in William Nicholson's screenplay that more or less adheres to the conventional mythology from that period while adding some refreshing - if not entirely new - plot twists. Rather, the flaw remains in the miscasting of Richard Gere as valiant Sir Lancelot.
Not only does Gere speak his part without an English or French accent (Lancelot DuLac was French), but his whole demeanor seems to suggest a jarring contemporary, and painfully sacrilegious 'cowabunga' surfer dude bravado that is quite simply out of touch with the timelessness of his character.
The film's opening tableau outlines Arthur's (Sean Connery) victorious return from war, his dedication to establishing a peaceful utopia where all will be welcomed, prosperous and able to live their lives in peace and harmony. Naturally, Arthur's fanciful creation of Camelot appeals not only to his own constituents but outsiders as well. An internal fly in the ointment is Malagant (Ben Cross), a knight of the round table who rebels to seek the throne of England for his own.
Meanwhile, it has been decided that Arthur will marry Guinevere (Julia Ormond); a queen to her region's peoples all but extinguished from their lands by Malagant's forces. En route to Camelot Guinevere and Lancelot's paths cross, he saving her from the first of many near fatal ambushes by Malagant's men. Lancelot pursues Guinevere on a romantic plain but his initial advances are heartily spurned.
However, Lancelot and Guinevere meet up again, this time inside Camelot where Lancelot finagles a kiss from the lady fair under Arthur's watchful eye. Impressed by Lancelot's reckless courage, Arthur shows him the Round Table; the emblem of Camelot's brotherhood. Guinevere is kidnapped by Malagant's followers forcing Lancelot to come to her aid once more. This he does in spectacular fashion, winning Arthur's gratitude but still not the lady's heart.
Arthur appoints Lancelot to Malagant's old post at the Round Table under ample protests from the other knights, each suspecting that Lancelot's vanity and affections for Guinevere will bring about an end to Arthur's peaceful domain. Nevertheless, and despite Guinevere's growing affections for Lancelot, Arthur marries Guinevere. However, there is little time for rejoicing or lovemaking.
A messenger arrives from Leonesse to inform the King and Queen that Malagant's forces have conquered that region and lane waste to its lands. Arthur leads Lancelot and the rest of his knights into battle. They are victorious against Malagant and his soldiers with Lancelot distinguishing himself on the battle field. However, Lancelot has been reformed by the experience and soon afterward begins to harbor guilt over his gnawing romantic feelings toward the queen.
By now Guinevere has hopelessly fallen for Lancelot; a romantic tragedy that culminates with Arthur stumbling upon the two locked in a passionate embrace. Despite protestations from both, Lancelot and the queen are charged with treason to the crown by Arthur. However, during their public trial, Malagant resurfaces in a surprise attack.
The terms of his invasion are stay and surrender, but Arthur encourages his people to rise up and fight for the preservation of their freedoms instead. Malagant's men fatally wound Arthur with their crossbows and Lancelot - free of his chains - chooses to fight for Arthur's Camelot by seizing the king's fallen sword, Excalibur, and killing Malagant during the final showdown. A dying Arthur places Lancelot's hand in Guinevere's, urging his most valiant knight to oversee the future safety of both his queen and Camelot. Arthur's body is placed on a funeral pyre that is set adrift. So ends, First Knight.
The film has perhaps been unfairly criticized for avoiding many of the clichés so prevalent elsewhere in the Arthurian mythology. To this critic's mind, the absence of such time honored hokum has always made this adaptation pointedly refreshing.
Connery's interpretation of Arthur is impressive - perhaps not surprisingly so. After all, the actor's cache has always been his larger than life screen persona - first, as James Bond and then in a series of roles in the mid-1980s (DePalma's The Untouchables kicking off the most recent cycle in the actor's career) that reestablished him as a performer of some range beyond the iconic British super spy.
Julia Ormond's understated performance as Guinevere deserved mention. As a woman internally conflicted by her very different emotional attachments to two men, Ormond amply delivers both subtlety and substance. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Nicholson screenplay is its flawed buddy/buddy dynamic between Arthur and Lancelot - men of honor obviously enamored with each other's station in life but unable to allow jealousy to replace that moral integrity they both share.
First Knight may not be perfect entertainment, but it does exercise a fair amount of featherweight pleasure for the average filmgoer. The period costumes and sets have impeccable detailing, hardly surprising since the production was shot entirely in England. Jerry Goldsmith's score is appropriately fanciful, romanticized and exhilarating where propriety demands. In the final analysis, this is a solid film that surely delights.
Sony's Blu-Ray disc delivers the goods, easily besting its DVD offering from 1999. The hi-def master exhibits a truly sharp and inspiring picture quality marked by occasional softness. For the most part, colors are bright and pop. Flesh tones are naturally realized. Contrast levels are beautifully realized. The audio is Dolby TruHD and amply aggressive for this presentation.
Extras are confined to all of the supplements made previously available on the collector's DVD from Sony. They include two informative and diverse audio commentary tracks and three featurettes on the making of the film. Of these, only the last one, entitled 'In Shining Armor' is worthy of a glance. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)