Combined Rating: 4.5/5
I’ve always loved stories about King Arthur and Camelot, which seem to dwell right in that shadowy place between history and mythology. There’s something so romantic about the old Celtic world, and of course the ideal of chivalrous knights and brotherly love. Despite this, I generally cringe at the way the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot plays out. It’s supposed to be a tragedy, I suppose, but for something so idyllic to end in betrayal, war, and heartbreak is like a recapitulation of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. I’d prefer to think of the characters almost like a photograph, frozen in a single moment in time where the betrayal has not yet occurred, and thus, while Lancelot and Guinevere must love one another, everything is still precariously perfect. But I never thought that version of the story actually existed, until I saw this film.
In this rendition, Lancelot (Richard Gere) is a disillusioned young man who lost everything and everyone dear to him as a child, and now roams the Anglian countryside from village to village earning his money as a traveling swordsman. As Guinevere (Julia Ormond—who was so well cast!) travels by carriage, she is accosted by Prince Malagant (Ben Cross)’s ruffians, and Lancelot saves her from them. They’re immediately drawn to one another, though she denies it, having already promised to marry King Arthur (Sean Connery—and really, could anyone else have played that role)? The plot from there is quite simple: Connery presides over peaceful Camelot, while Malagant, his rogue former knight, is determined to destroy it for destruction’s own sake. Because Arthur truly loves Guinevere, she seems to be Malagant’s ticket, but each time he attacks her, Lancelot shows up to save her as a true romantic hero. Arthur, innocent as a child, suspects nothing. Guinevere, meanwhile, valiantly resists Lancelot’s charms, but he’s selfishly determined to win her over—and this is the only reason why he ultimately decides to join the Knights of the Round Table in the first place. Lancelot finally has a change of heart and decides to leave the kingdom for its own good, and ironically, this is what finally wins over the good queen’s heart… and then everything begins to unravel.
I really can’t find fault with any element of this film. The acting and casting were both superb, and the filming and score both felt epic and fairytale-esque. Unlike every other version of the Arthurian legends I’ve ever read or seen, this one even manages to have a pseudo-happy ending for the romantic pair, or at least a happy ending is implied. I’m sorry for Arthur still, but even though he’s Sean Connery, he was way too old for Julia Ormond to begin with. (She never should have agreed to marry him in the first place, she was just being unnecessarily stubborn.)
What do you get when director Jerry Zucker (the zany, scattered mind behind Airplane, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun) goes all in on Arthurian lore? The answer is: not what you’d expect! First Knight is an epic fantasy film that is surprisingly earnest and dialed in, probing the trade of freedom for community as an exercise in maturity. In fact, it’s hard to believe First Knight is the work of the same man, but then again, I guess Zucker did direct Ghost (1990) five years prior, where he first revealed his secret penchant for schmaltzy romance. While First Knight still has contained moments of schmaltz (minus the wet pottery), Zucker paces and stages the action scenes so well around the evolution of the crux relationships, you almost forget this is basically a love triangle flick. Manly men (like myself) can be easily conned into buying that they’re watching a movie about medieval conflict, honor, and sacrifice for a greater cause that just happens to include some tragic passion.
When unhinged knight of the round table Prince Malagant (Ben Cross) goes rogue, he takes a surly contingent, sets up shop in a nearby, conveniently dingy castle ruin, and starts burning villages protected by Camelot, before threatening Camelot itself. Malagant pursues power, disguised in excuses about how Arthur is a wuss and men really want “leadership,” not democracy. He argues that Arthur’s shared power structure is somehow tyrannical (a “come again?” argument ahead of its time). Because locking peasants in flaming barns gets tiresome, Malagant tries kidnapping Guinevere to force Arthur to capitulate to his vision, but lounging Lancelot keeps intervening. Longing for peace and quiet, Sean Connery’s weathered King Arthur is so altruistic and trusting of Lancelot’s perceived motives, he fails to predict what being rescued multiple times by a long-haired loner can do to a girl in the primal urges department…or maybe he’s just too old to remember. In setting Arthur up as a straight arrow, and the film’s real victim, the movie ultimately makes us feel it when he climactically and heroically commits to his resolving choices. It is great to live by a code, but it is the level of commitment we demonstrate in brief, pivotal moments that defines us. And for Lancelot, the extent to which he matures depends on his level of commitment to accepted ethical/communal standards.
Zucker balances the grand and the intimate scale masterfully, while finding ways of keeping Lancelot close by to continually rescue Guinevere, as he struggles internally between living a life of isolated freedom and risking more for a sense of belonging. Richard Gere as hunk-for-hire Lancelot, who inadvertently spoils the King’s long-deserved marriage to Guinevere, seems at first to come off as a bit cold and dickish, until we realize that a tragedy of his childhood provoked his chosen untethered lifestyle. Since Gere himself tends to come across as distant and uncommitted, I guess we will call it good casting. Julia Ormand as Guinevere exudes innocence, surprising even herself when her own discipline fails at an inopportune moment. Jerry Goldsmith’s lushly romantic theme must have been too much for her to bear. Damn you, Jerry! And Malagant himself is a worthy villain whose greed and lust for power is evident in his burrowing, man-lined eyes. To solidify his evil street cred, he should have hired Michael Wincott to torture his captives, since Wincott gloriously features in many other ‘90’s medieval castle flicks. You’d know him if you heard him! Think greasy and gravelly. Even still, First Knight creates a fanciful yet humanized mythology that illustrates how the core ideas of Camelot, in the person of King Arthur, proved both its strength and eventual weakness. But even in decline, it’s still a place I’d want to live!
Meal Pairing: The story isn’t set in the Renaissance, but it feels like it is, because it’s about knights and chivalry and all that… so a turkey leg (gnawed from the bone), Yukon Gold potatoes roasted with butter and garlic, with stewed apples and a pint of local ale.