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“You have to not care whether you live or die!” says our hero as the film begins, explaining his approach to fighting with swords. And so it begins, another spin on the legend of King Arthur, fast becoming a tale as old as time, being reimagined and rebooted countless times it seems, open enough for interpretation that nearly every genre in the business has found a way to work it into a feature-length movie. From the epic John Boorman classic Excalibur to the raucous Monty Python and the Holy Grail and everything in-between, the story is one that finds new life in each new generation.
Back in the 90s, that new life fell on the broad shoulders of the unlikely pairing of legendary-in-his-own-right, Sean Connery, who seems tailor made for such a movie, and Richard Gere, who had to this point well-established himself as a fringe actor able to work in a diverse spectrum of film styles, from commercially successful romantic leading man roles to dark, moody parts that showcased a much more edgier actor. With First Knight, it was a mix of both for him and a rather curious turn for Connery as well, in a period film that could have been darker but nonetheless remains an entertaining and often inspired work that didn’t perform well on release but, more than twenty years later, has kind of ripened into a film filled with lots of tasty bits. A cross between the lighthearted swashbuckling of Kevin Costner‘s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Mel Gibson‘s Braveheart.
THE STORY: Directed by Jerry Zucker, best known for Airplane! (1980) and Ghost (1990), the story follows Lancelot (Gere), a gifted swordsman, who, after winning duels in smaller towns by his incredible skills and uncaring attitude toward his own life, happens upon the carriage of one Guinevere (Julia Ormond), rescuing her from certain death from an ambush at the hands of a vicious malcontent named Malagant (Ben Cross), a disgraced Knight of the Round Table seeking to usurp the throne from King Arthur (Sean Connery), whom he feels is leading the country in the wrong direction after establishing peace. Hungry for power, he roams the border towns with a legion of loyal followers, burning down villages to reign in terror.
Guinevere had been traveling to Camelot to marry Arthur, and when the king learns of her rescue (though she had a fair share in the rescuing herself, proving herself hardly a damsel in distress), becomes impressed by the man’s prowess and abilities, tempts him to join the fold, though is wary of his fearlessness. What he should be more worried about is the lust kindling between his future wife and the man who saved her life. When the castle is later attacked by Malagant, and once again Lancelot proves his worth in saving Guinevere–hoping she will offer her heart–she declines but Lancelot is nonetheless offered a place at the table, causing him strife between his love for the new queen and his loyalty for Arthur, something that will have great consequence when Malagant strikes again and the lady asks for something she swore she never would.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Straight away, the film is great to look at. Zucker and cinematographer Adam Greenberg, along with first rate production design (the film was shot on natural locations), give First Knight a warm lived-in feel and a true sense of the times, even if it is romanticized for drama. While it has a certain modern flare to the dialogue and mannerisms, there’s plenty to pull us into the era and lore of the story and if you’re paying attention to the peripherals, a lot of significant details in giving it some life, including the townspeople. Keep your eyes on the background and take note of the smaller things.
Aside from how it looks however, there’s no taking away from the leads, with Gere a surprisingly charming Lancelot, roguish and funny, and while he’s not the first name you might think would be right for the part, he delivers nonetheless, winning his way through it will charms on overload.
Just as good is Cross though, who seems absolutely destined for the part and acts as if he never got the memo about the tone of the film, giving the story its heaviest moments, well above the more breezy and lighter elements of the rest of the movie. He’s a classic villain and from his first appearance, great fun to watch. His exchanges with Connery are real highlights. This is a bad dude.
A GREAT MOMENT: Let’s get back to Gere though. He’s the real star of the show and his interpretation of Lancelot as a brooding yet lovable gentleman soldier-type makes for an surprisingly fun take, even if the long locks of hair get distracting. He’s always had this sort of knowing look about him, his thin eyes and flirty smile acting like an invitation for audiences to join him in his antics, and here he practically transcends the line between seduction and performance, snickering his way through the film with a wink and a twinkle, even when the action heats up.
And that leads to this great moment. At one point in the story, Lancelot, after that rescue in the woods, finds himself in Camelot, and smitten by the soon-to-be queen, volunteers to try his luck on a complex and deadly obstacle course that, for those who successfully navigate, earn a kiss from the lady. Problem is, this is one heck of an obstacle course with some ingenious contraptions and pointy things that have knocked out all those who try right of the running.
Not to be outdone, Lancelot steps up and weaves his way through the blades and bumpers, evading danger all the way through and wins the crowd over with wild cheers, earning himself a chance for a smack on the lips with the queen, though what he does instead, well … you’ll have to see. More importantly, he gains the favor of Arthur, who sees great potential but also some concern in the warrior and the story begins to focus on this relationship, both for good and bad.
THE TALLY: First Knight is by no standard a classic, not really taking the famous legend in any new direction, but it sure has a lot of great energy and mixes some effective moments of drama and action with romance and loyalty. There is a ton a great adventure here, and while sensibilities and filmmaking styles have changed in the two decades since, this is still a terrific experience. Connery is in top form as Arthur, regal and convincing as is the beautiful Ormond who steals nearly every scene she is in. The film is well-directed and while it lacks the grandeur and scale of a few other films of the era that took us back to ancient times, it is made great by its performances and rousing score by Jerry Goldsmith. As the legend of King Arthur sees a return to the big screen recently, it’s worth looking back at those that came before. First Knight is a good place to start. It’s what to watch.