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‘First Knight’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 07, 1995


Jerry Zucker
Sean Connery;
Richard Gere;
Julia Ormond;
Ben Cross

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With his American accent, Richard Gere is obviously a Yankee in King Arthur's court in the shallow romantic epic "First Knight." His boyish Lancelot, however, is far from the sole incongruity in this stripped-down version of the famous legend. Pillaged of such mainstays as Merlin and Morgan le Fay—as well as magic, majesty and depth—"Camelot" has become "Camelite."

"First Knight" is nevertheless a pretty film, graced with gorgeous sets and filled with pomp (if not circumstance) by director Jerry Zucker of "Ghost." There's even a real knight in the picture—Sir John Gielgud, playing faithful retainer to Julia Ormond's noble Guinevere.

As does the traditional story, William Nicholson's literate, sometimes stilted screenplay makes Arthur's bride-to-be the pivotal character. Coincidentally, Guinevere finds herself in the same fix as the heroines of both "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Pocahontas"; she must choose between her duty to others and her heart's desire.

Lady Guinevere, who recently inherited the tiny kingdom of Leonesse from her beloved father, agrees to wed King Arthur (Sean Connery impersonating a suit of armor), not only because she's fond of her father's old friend but also because his army can protect her lands and people from the incursions of the villainous Malagant (Ben Cross). A fallen knight who's just plumb wacko, Malagant has decided that the Round Table's just for squares and he'll be hangeth if he's going to put up with this chivalry crap anymore. Thus he ambushes Guinevere's heavily protected Camelot-bound convoy, in hopes of taking the lady hostage.

Lancelot, a vagabond who makes his living dueling farmers for pence, happens along in time to rescue the damsel from a fate worse than death. When he steals a kiss as repayment, Guinevere feigns outrage, though she obviously is attracted to the hunky varlet. Lancelot, heretofore unable to commit due to a childhood trauma, follows the convoy to Camelot, dreaming of somehow winning Guinevere away from Arthur. Instead, he wins Arthur's admiration with another daring rescue.

The film contains battle scenes (they seem almost bloodless after the ferocity of "Braveheart") and glancing references to period politics, but "First Knight" is primarily a love story, and a chaste one at that. While Camelot usually is associated with the lusty Kennedy clan, Guinevere is more like Jimmy Carter: She lusts in her heart.

Of course, Arthur seems like a fool when he makes an issue of what was, after all, only a farewell kiss. The great Cornish king becomes merely a corny one as the tale devolves into a compromise between the principles of Camelot and of Hollywood.

First Knight is rated PG-13 for violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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