The Scoop: 1995 PG, directed by Jerry Zucker and starring Sean Connery, Richard Gere and Julia Ormond.
Tagline: Their greatest battle would be for her love.
Summary Capsule: Soft-focus medieval romance drama gets itself watched by pretending to be about King Arthur and having a shocking lead star. Still no-one cares.
Louise’s Rating: 2 out of 5 corseted ladies.
Louise’s Review: I’ve been thinking about exactly why I like my favourite films, and I’ve come to the conclusion that one reason is that, whatever they are, there is no other film like them. They are unique in some way. Thousands of writers’, actors’, directors’, producers’ and designers’ individual decisions have come together to produce something that is entirely new – different to what came before, and near impossible to convincingly replicate afterwards.
The problem with First Knight is that it’s not really one of those films. Some casting choices plunge to depths of poor judgement rarely seen before or since, but that doesn’t make it stand out. I actually feel rather embarrassed around this flick: I feel like I’m at a party, and in the corner is a normally inoffensive but not particularly interesting girl, who has applied red eyeshadow with green mascara, and come in nothing but fishnets and a T-shirt in an attempt to get some attention, but everyone’s still ignoring her except me, and now she’s coming over to talk to me because she’s just so desperate… I want to say to her, “Gee whiz, Joey, even with that colossal wardrobe blunder, still no-one cares! Just go home, Joey! This is not your night.”
This imaginary girl is called Joey, I don’t know why. This very real film is called First Knight, and I think that’s because King Arthur makes Lancelot his ‘first knight’. I think it means, ‘best knight’ rather than ‘knight who set his alarm clock earlier than everyone else’s, and was first into the queue for bacon and porridge in the Camelot canteen’.
Where was I? And why do I desire bacon? Oooooh, bacon…
First Knight interests me academically as a comparison to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It’s supposedly about another British legend (Sean Connery as King Arthur), it features another well-born lady with a concern for justice and curly dark hair, and another dire American-accented hero (that’s so we know we can trust him, peeps). The whole production is lushly lit, full of pretty castles and gardens. The script is full of light (read ‘weak’) humour, and there is a cast of gentle aristocrats and humble serfs, all of which are very clean and metrosexual and not wearing nearly enough clothing for living in a draughty stone building. The two films are both firmly placed in the early ‘90s. You could mistake one for the other in dim light and at a distance.
The problem is, RH: PoT sort of works and First Knight, sorta…well…doesn’t. Don’t worry, that’s not the end of the review. I’m going to explain why.
I think it’s because that RH: PoT undoubtedly *is* a Robin Hood film, while this isn’t really a King Arthur film beyond the character names. It is a historical drama rather than a fantasy adventure, but the history is obviously false because hello! It’s King Arthur! So, that means no Merlin, no Morgan Le Fay (so no incestuous relationship and no Mordred), no Fisher King, just a load of political discussion and a short civil war that you know Never Happened. The film explores only two of the legends – the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle, and a kidnap of Guinevere (Julia Ormond) – but divests them of any significance and meaning. The fact that the whole story seems to take place in less than a week is unfortunate, but it’s compounded with stinky dialogue, a small plot with no sense of ambition, and really, really bad casting.
Richard Gere as Sir Lancelot: whose bright idea was that? He is an inherently unconvincing, laughable, very modern actor – do you really think he can pull off a realistic medieval swordsman (homicidally brave?) and the man who taught Romeo everything he knew about tragic love? Lancelot is meant to be the knight who does things others cannot. Gere plays Lancelot as a fluffy-haired, polished-chested stalker mercenary, who has a fear of commitment stemming from a Tragic Backstory and a really bad set of chat-up lines: “I know when a woman wants me, I can see it in her eyes.” Feminists of the world go Bleugh!
He’s awful, really, absolutely awful as Lancelot. Gere comes across as out-of-place as a high-vis safety jacket on a bride. Man just can’t do period and should accept it, mmmkay?
His relationship with Guinevere is not love, and not even romantic. Basically, he pursues her when she is still unmarried (and who is to say that what a single woman does is anyone’s business but her own?), and then wears down her resistance until she’s too tired to put him off. Feminists of the world go Boo!
There’s also a crap villain, who takes over Camelot in the easiest coup ever. You can tell he’s evil, because he’s the only one with stubble.
I don’t want to sound like First Knight has nothing to redeem it. It’s a vaguely pleasant way to spend an evening doing something else. Have it on in the background while you cook or tinker with your playlists on the laptop. Sir Sean Connery is always welcome, though he plays an older Arthur much like he played Richard the Lionheart, Draco the Dragon and that guy in Highlander. He is an old man now, a tired one who has spent his life trying to get ordinary people to commit to something greater, and now wants something for himself. He and Guinevere make an interesting couple – she is a lot younger than he is, the daughter of his friend, and he can’t believe his luck that she genuinely wants to marry him.
He and Lancelot also have the beginnings of a compelling dynamic between them – clearly, he is the first man to ever have faith in Lancelot, though, alas, not just for himself but for what he could do for Camelot. I’m a little disappointed that the only reason Arthur and Lancelot meet is because Lancelot wants another chance to intimidate and blackmail Guinevere into kissing him. It doesn’t feel genuinely Arthurian without having the boys in the foreground.
But Arthur is ahigh point of the film. His impassioned “Why?” when he learns of Guinevere’s affair (actually only one kiss) with Lancelot, I find rather moving. Why do relationships ever go wrong, Arthur? He takes a while to appear, though – like I said, plot is not very good. Some of the production is quite effective. My viewing notes say that Guinevere’s reception at Camelot is pretty cool, and there’s a rather exciting night time battle (but the slow motion was a bad choice). There are also some little-known actors I recognize in walk-on roles, so I get a bit of a kick out of that.
But mainly, First Knight is Joey, trying to get noticed at a party, and still finding herself a wallflower. Gee whiz, girl, just go home. You just don’t have what it takes.
- That balcony scene is straight out of The Princess Bride
- That waterfall scene is straight out of Romancing the Stone
- That love story is straight out of Speed… well, maybe not, but it is a bit InstaLove based on shared stressful situations.
- Hey, that’s Liam Cunningham as the lieutenant Agravain. I rather like him.
- Hey, that’s Jonathan Cake, star of the Catherine Cookson’s The Girl miniseries that I’ve always liked, as another of the knights.
- If you’re a fan of the TV comedy Black Books, I’m sure you’ll have recognized Bernard Black’s ‘summer girl’ as the peasant maiden right at the beginning.
- :::SPOILER::: Arthur is felled by a stray arrow in the middle of a palace takeover? He deeds Camelot and Guinevere to Lancelot? Where’s my copy of Malory?
- ::: SPOILER ::: Ah, the old trope of a Viking funeral. Never mind that he’s a Christian king, and that there is no evidence that the Vikings ever did that. Burials in ships are documented in Anglo-Saxon England, cremation is documented in Arab accounts of the Vikings in Asia, pushing a corpse out to sea is mentioned in Old English poetry, but never putting the body in a ship, pushing it out to sea, then firing burning arrows at it.
Lancelot: You’ll ask me to kiss you again.
Malagant: No gates, no bars, no locks, just walls of air.
King Arthur: God uses people like you, Lancelot.
King Arthur: I trusted you, loved you, and you betrayed me.
Lancelot: I know when a woman wants me, I see it in her eyes.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- The Princess Bride