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‘First Knight’

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 07, 1995


Jerry Zucker
Sean Connery;
Richard Gere;
Julia Ormond;
Ben Cross
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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If the title of the latest Camelot recasting makes you wince, it's a fair omen: "First Knight" lurches between swashbuckling spectacular and Idyll soap opera. There's swordplay to the hilt, but the story itself never quite gets in Gere.

Which is director Jerry Zucker's fault, because if the 30 most egregious minutes had been edited out, "First Knight" would have been, well, a lot better. Zucker started out as part of the "Airplane!" and "Naked Gun" team, and he just can't break the cheap-joke habit. Either that, or his critical faculties are on suspension.

Zucker demeans the obliging Sir John Gielgud (as Guinevere's aged adviser Oswald) by robing and bearding him into a dead ringer for Obi-Wan Kenobi; he undercuts the increasingly uncomfortable Richard Gere by showing him racing into battle, teeth gritted in slow-mo intensity, to the sound of his horse wheezing; he even gives Gere recycled yippie speeches about personal freedom and a childhood trauma to explain it. Is this any way to treat a hero?

There are portions of the movie that are likable enough, particularly the first half-hour or so. As the itinerant Lancelot, who lives by his wits and knows just what they're worth, Gere is disarmingly—in both senses—relaxed. He looks fairly comfortable with a sword. He doesn't bother straining for an accent (almost nobody does). Even when he says to Guinevere, whom he has just rescued in fine chivalric fashion, "I know when a woman wants me," his conceit seems a plausible part of the role. It's when he develops a moral dilemma that he starts to strain.

Guinevere is first seen playing soccer with her court, which gives some credence to her later, fitful, flashes of martial ardor. As Guinevere, Julia Ormond has much the same role as she had in "Legends of the Fall," all long wavy hair, flowing costumes and wordless, endless brimming-eyed betrayal—but at least this time she has a horse worthy of a queen.

As Arthur, of course, Sean Connery is irresistible. Connery is the perfect Arthur/Richard the Lion-Hearted/Robin Hood because he manages to convey that these heroes recognize their idealism as a form of boyishness, and he invests them with a bit of self-deprecation and a trace of stubbornness.

The film is frequently gorgeous: Arthur and his knights are first glimpsed at night, in a velvety black-and-blue torchlight parade into the celestial Camelot. A night battle is lit by moonlight, so that the armored forces rushing together shine and scuttle like a plague of locusts. (Like much of the soundtrack, this recalls "Excalibur," John Boorman's 1981 gothic version of the same legend.) And the rebel knight Malagant, played with villainous relish by Ben Cross, makes his stand on a slate mountain, black and glittering.

But: The plot seems to have been worked out backward. In the traditional version, Lancelot is the greatest knight of all, a French noble who comes to Camelot because he believes in Arthur's dream and who loses his moral compass when he falls in love with Guinevere. It's their affair, in effect, that destroys Camelot. This Lancelot is a very Common Man who comes to court because he's in love with Guinevere, and then is given moral direction by falling under Arthur's spell. In this safe-sex era, Guinevere and Lancelot don't even get to have an affair: They kiss only once, when Lancelot prepares to do the right thing by leaving—which is when Arthur walks in.

Arthur himself is such a paragon that there can be no bastard son Mordred (in the unbowdlerized versions, the real cause of Camelot's fall is Arthur's seduction by his half-sister Morgan la Fey). Instead, there's the fallen-angel Malagant. Despite the supra-medieval setting, Zucker loads up the struggle between Arthur and Malagant not only with political baggage from centuries later—tyranny versus democracy— but drags in a ton of Christian-Celtic stuff from a millennium earlier. And that's assuming you haven't noticed that a kingdom isn't exactly democratic. There are churches and altars galore, not to mention vigils and desecrations and fires and smashed stained glass. Between Malagant and his Christian duty, poor Arthur has too many Crosses to bear.

The last thing you see is a funeral barge going up in flames. It serves as a fitting symbol for the entire movie.

FIRST KNIGHT (PG-13) — Battlefield violence, no profanity or nudity and not even much innuendo.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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