First Knight Review
Their greatest battle would be for her love.
It's not the most inspiring tagline for a big budget medieval actioner, is it?
I doubt that there is a more character-rich, thought-provoking and ideological series of adventures that the cinema can embrace so ravishingly as the legends purloined from out of the Arthurian Romances. Out of step with reality, yet laden with metaphor, heroism, lust and profound emotional revelation, they are possibly much more forward-thinking in their depiction of good and evil, corruption and temptation, morality and salvation than any other fiction so far composed. The legacy of the hand-me-down legend stretches throughout our entire pop-culture idiom - from films, books and theatre to theme-parks, our own Royal Institution, and its preponderance to the chivalric rituals of old, and even the Lottery. The Age of Chivalry is still much debated and King Arthur's place within it was nixed a long, long time ago. But such is the potent power of his myth that it retains an integral artefact of alternate history and an irresistible pull on our collective imagination. So, it is not hard to see how its themes and concepts can be manipulated and twisted, re-worked, adapted and re-evaluated time and time again. John Boorman's celebrated, and simply excellent, Excalibur (1981) touched upon the mythos and the mystique of the story with a wry sense of humour and an often frightening surrealism. For many, it remains the filmic pinnacle of Arthur and the Round Table. But there are so many variations that can be undertaken that you could release a movie a year on the subject and still have tales left untold come Doomsday.
And, sadly, one of those that should have remained untold was this one.
For, from the rich, sprawling and perennially popular Arthurian tapestry, director Jerry Zucker settles on the doomed love triangle betwixt Arthur (Sean Connery), his comely Queen Guinevere (Julia Ormond) and drifting sword-for-hire Lancelot (Richard Gere). Huh? Richard Gere? That most un-English, un-medieval, and just plain old un-convincing of actors as one of English literature's most complex chivalric personalities? The casting beggars belief. They may as well have gone all the way and had Graham Norton as Merlin, Fatima Whitbread as Morgan La Fey and Hayden Christenson as the lump of stone that the sword gets pulled out of!
The plot, for what it is worth, is that Arthur, looking forward to some quiet retirement from quests and battles, dragons and warlocks, seeks the hand of fair Guinevere in marriage and to rule over Camelot, securing peace and stability for his people. Alas, what goes around tends to come back around, and disgraced former Knight of the Round Table, Prince Malagant (a villain from way back early on in the written Romances and played here by dreary, narrow-boat-faced Ben Cross) has formed a rebel army of cut-throats and outlaws with the distinct intention of overthrowing his ex-King and getting his grubby mitts on the glittering city of Camelot. Aye, it's ye olde villain motivation writ large, and with his nefarious, scheming ways and some crafty use of sub-aqua knights (hmmm) and canny sheep-camouflage (more hmmm) he soon has a pretty effective bargaining chip in his dank and dismal lair with which to force Arthur's regal hand. Looks like Arthur's going to be needing a new hero, since all his usual chaps just seem content to thump their chain-mailed fists on the Round Table at Camelot ... a lot. Just as well that the dashing, huge-hootered Lancelot, travelling swordsman and pure narrative wastrel, happens upon the scene. And, hey, isn't it great that he's so willing to help out? What a self-sacrificing, honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth good guy, eh? But, hang on a minute ... isn't that the King's wife he's having a horribly nose squishing snog with? Gadzooks, it's a right medieval mess and no mistake! What's a philosophical and benevolent King to do without a wizard to put things right?
You could say, and very justifiably so, that First Knight's departure from the usual mythical context of Arthur and Camelot is tantamount to absolute sacrilege and yet another example of Hollywood sanitising something that is inherently a British tradition - like our achievement in the Second World War being nothing compared the Yankee input, say. With no Merlin, no Sir Tristan, Sir Gawain or Sir Bedevere, no mention of the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Mordred, Avalon and nary whiff of a dragon, the screenplay from Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton sort of leaves you wondering exactly what bits of King Arthur's hardly limited saga have been left in. Well, taking their cue from the doomed love triangle that is formed between the King, his Queen and his First Knight, Sir Lancelot, and weaving this delicate balance of power-politics into a completely made-up rebellion plot, the film still has much ground that could be embraced. Indeed, focussing on the treachery and redemption that marked Arthur's dwindling days on the throne is a pretty oblique and rather blunt-nosed examination of how even heroes such as Arthur and Lancelot could be swayed by something as simple, yet as complex as the love for one woman. But, the trio need to be believable and how the situation of deceit and lust comes about needs to be affecting. Areas in which First Knight cruelly comes up short.
“Do you know how to win a sword fight?”
“Be the only one with a sword!”
One thing is for certain, the film is never boring. Although this entertainment value is strictly of the Saturday-Matinee style of storytelling, with roguish ruffians making every attempt to steal Guinevere away from the honourable Arthur and Lancelot's ludicrous skirting around the ethics of the “greater good” whilst just indulging in every opportunity for Boys Own derring-do, although the impetus for such behaviour is often less formulaic than is immediately apparent - in that he is doing it for something much less noble than the protection of Arthur's dream-state of Camelot. Lancelot is only out for one thing throughout the movie. He wants Guinevere, pure and simple. In fact, he is the real snake in the grass, not Malagant who, at least, is open about what he is after. Even after Lancelot has pledged his allegiance to Arthur and the Round Table and claimed that he has found a purpose to his life, he still asks Guinevere to come away with him. Such character development is not realistic, as the writers evidently hope. It is plain cack-handed.
“God uses people like you, Lancelot. Because your heart is open. You hold nothing back. You give all of yourself.”
“If you knew me better, you would not say such things.”
“Oh, hey, I take the good with the bad, together. I can't love people in slices.”
Ooh, they'll be in slices when he finds out, though!
Sean Connery, as is typical of his latter-day roles, is purely Sean Connery. Naturally, he seems only right to be playing someone of King Arthur's stature, he is Hollywood royalty when all said and done. But, getting past the accent (which, if we are to be historically accurate to the majority of theories regarding Arthur, should actually be Welsh - Rhys Ifans, anyone?), his demeanour - noble, commanding, compassionate - and his towering sense of authority and worldly-wise benevolence, in fact, make for a very authentic incarnation of the warrior-monarch ... as far as the legend goes, at any rate. Personally speaking, I think he is the only actor who would be able to pull off such cod-philosophising with anything approaching dignity and I can see some effort being made to get into the role with something other than a “spout the lines and take the money” sort of ethic. Certainly, he comes away from this movie with more respect from me then either of his two co-stars. Though there are still plenty of instances when his courtly ways are less than kosher. Check out the little pathetic smile on his face as he and Guinevere first ride towards Camelot, for example. And his final bit of acting is one of those moments that just makes you feel uncomfortable for him.
In case you guessed it, Richard Gere is woefully miscast as Lancelot. With that brutish snout of his, a shaggy mane of hair and a body too thick and bullish to look good prancing through the woods, this medieval gigolo is much too happy-go-lucky to convince as anything other than a celebrity actor finally doing his bit in the obligatory period romp. With a supposed twinkle in his eye that actually makes him resemble something of a rapist as he puts the moves on Guinevere right from the word go I might add, this Lancelot is a chancer, a traveller, a streetwise poser and cocksure pillock who irritates much more than he inspires. His Brooklyn swagger looms so large over everything that he does here that I'm surprised he didn't hoist the Stars And Stripes above Camelot's clumsy matte painting. His opening scene - some showing-off with a sword for the gullible denizens of a village that will be wiped out within a minute of the only qualified fighter for miles actually riding away from it - is a corker of daft choreography and lousy words of wisdom. And, sadly, things are hardly going to improves for Gere from here on in with acting that is as expressive as an Easter Island Statue and an attitude more akin to a cardsharp than a hero-for-hire.
“Lancelot, just a thought. A man who fears nothing is a man who loves nothing; and if you love nothing, what joy is there in your life? I may be wrong.”
Oh, you may be wrong, huh? Not much point listening to you then, is there?
And Julia Ormond in a second movie that sees her as the object of desire in a love triangle - with the impressive Legends Of The Fall being the other - is simply terrible. One of the blandest actresses around, she does exactly squat to provoke such heroism from her suitors. In fact, she does nothing in Legends either, but at least in that film she fits in with the dreamy, meandering quality of the story. Here, she rides horses and just ... well, rides horses. With about as much presence as a shop dummy, but only half the allure, she often appears as a simple prop shoved into the frame. And the chemistry between herself and Gere, or Connery for that matter, could be measured by the beans from a bean jar that has never had any beans in it. In fact, there is considerably more chemistry between Gere and Connery ...which is an unpleasant thought, if I'm honest about it.
And the less said about Sir John Gielgud's crooning old windbag, Oswald, the better, methinks.
It is worth looking out for the bit-parters who crop up in the film, though. Malagant's light-bulb-headed lieutenant Ralf is played by The Office's “Finchy”, Ralph Ineson with a sneer that could well have been manufactured by master mask-maker Don (Star Wars cantina) Post. Then there's Liam (Dog Soldiers) Cunningham as Agravaine, Rob Brydon as a scared peasant villager and Emmerdale's Christopher Villiers as another of the indomitable knights. And, if you look closely during Lancelot's prance-a-lot at the very start, I reckon one of those yawning villagers could well be curly-mopped Rory McGrath. But, answers on a postcard please for the name of the guy who used to be in London's Burning who has a speck at Arthur's Round Table. Nobody really shines though and, coincidentally, nor does the armour, unlike that seen in Excalibur, of course. Ranks of Camelot's finest holding torches aloft to welcome their new queen look strangely dull and the little patch of blue embroidery across their chests seems just as quirky as that curious dangly bit of steel that Nigel Terry's mob wore in Boorman's Wagnerian epic. And don't get me started on those ridiculous helmets! At least Lancelot has the sense to ditch his and let his foam-cushioned locks protect his head instead.
Visually, the film makes decent use of its location work. Slate-mines look suitably grim, wet and inhospitable - though, even if you were an out-and-out baddie, wouldn't you choose to live somewhere a little more warm and comfortable? - and the forests have that unique atmosphere that only the genuine environment can evoke. But when it comes to effects-embellishments, the matte painted citadels and burning hamlets are pretty awful. On a couple of occasions, characters crest a hillock to survey some breathtaking or awesome sight, only to have the sad fact that they are, in reality, gawping out at absolutely nothing at all excruciatingly revealed by both poor reactions and glaring matte lines. Many times, the imagery and visual style of The Princess Bride is recalled, which is fine if you're making a low-key fantasy-fable, but desperately unsatisfying if you're mounting a glossy, large-scale extravaganza. Some of the sets are nice and large, by way of compensation, and the adherence to that big castle courtyard full of the usual medieval paraphernalia would be cosily nostalgic if it weren't for the texture-less surfaces and the all-too-convenient little fires strategically dotted around the joint that are meant to signify that a big battle has taken place. Honestly, look at the main road into Guinevere's beloved Lyonesse after Malagant's marauders have sacked the place - with tiny pockets of flame all conveniently tucked to the sides so as not to worry the horses coming through.
“This is the heart of Camelot, not these stones, not these timbers, these palaces and towers. Burn them all and Camelot lives on, because it lives in us. Camelot is a belief that we hold in our hearts.”
Braveheart had set the benchmark for period battles and, even though Zucker had no need to pep up his skirmishes with blood and guts, his action set-pieces are so naff and unconvincing that they could have hailed from a TV show made more than a decade before. Wielding massively shiny broadswords that look totally fake and unthreatening - what about that little serrated edge that Mad Malagant's blade sports to make you realise he's really nasty? - and swinging them around with singularly pantomimic skills, the slayings are all of the strictly under-the-arm variety. Some blood does fly, but there really is nothing here that makes the action come across as anything more elaborate than a school-play. Plus, Malagant's rabble of rowdy rebels seem to have a penchant for little hand-held mini crossbows that they like to fire in volleys. Now, when these tiny cocktail-sticks are unleashed, the effect is akin to ... well, cocktail-sticks being unleashed ... such is the level of intimidation and destruction they wreak. With fight choreography that would shame The Tweenies, First Knight sinks under the weight of its own ineptitude. There's even that appalling Gauntlet test that Lancelot undertakes, with the pathetic animated blades and big rubber axes. All that is missing from this eye-poppingly ridiculous scene is Ulrika Jonson and John Fashnu waiting at the end of it. Arrrugahhhh!!!!
“There's a peace only to be found on the other side of war. If that war should come I will fight it!”
So, you think I hate the film, don't you?
Well, that's not quite true, actually. I can't deny that it is poorly done when compared to other offerings in the genre, but the level of lunacy that the makers think passes for a cleverly constructed piece of escapist drama warrants an enormous quantity of unwitting laughs. But, if you really want good fun with swashbuckling heroes, swooning love affairs and dastardly villains, then stick with Errol Flynn's The Adventures Of Robin Hood (which knew it was sending itself up all along) or Antonio Banderas' The Mask Of Zorro. Or even Monty Python And The Holy Grail. As anything other than a risible slice of pure money-wastage, First Knight is a travesty.