(1995)2Karl WilliamsThis sweeping re-imagining of the Arthurian legend boasts marvelous production design, some superior acting from Sean Connery as the leader of Camelot, and a handful of efficient, exciting action sequences skillfully directed by Jerry Zucker. Despite these positive elements, the film doesn't really work due to a trio of flaws overwhelming the material and making suspension of disbelief simply too difficult. The first is Richard Gere in the Lancelot role, an odd casting choice to say the least. Gere is simply too old, too corporate slick, and too calculating to play the virtuous, youthful man of the woods. The second problem is the film's attempt to excise the magic, sorcery, and witchcraft that is such an integral part of the source material. The Arthur mythos is nothing if not about the tension between the Old World, as represented by female-powered, earth-based paganism, and the new masculine ways symbolized by Christianity and Arthur's round-table attempts at civilized democracy-building. Here, Zucker has excised all of the former, retained the latter, and presented Arthur and his knights as a sort of lofty-minded, medieval JFK and cabinet. Such a radical departure even requires the invention of a completely new and rather pointedly named villain, Malagant, played with teeth-gnashing obviousness by Ben Cross. The third and final flaw, perhaps the film's most unforgivable, is that each character is presented as noble and upright, their struggles with infidelity not so much the result of inner flaws or delusional beliefs, but sheer proximity. The attraction between Guinevere and Lancelot can't even be called a romance since in this sexless version their passion is never consummated. In the final analysis, such radical detours from the classic and well-known source are too many and too great in degree. First Knight (1995) is an interesting attempt to present a secular humanist vision of an ancient fable, but the filmmakers have sacrificed too much of the grit, pain, and moral compromise of the traditional story elements in the name of modernization.
The tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is always ripe for retelling. In this rendition, the sexy Richard Gere is Sir Lancelot, threatening to supersede the aging King Arthur (Sean Connery) by winning the love of his young wife Guinevere (Julia Ormond). This update of the age-old legend succeeds on the strength of Gere's happy-go-lucky sex appeal, Ormond's gorgeous period costuming, and Connery's unbeatable wry nobility. The script focuses on the triangle of the three principals: the older man's reluctance to relinquish his love and power to the younger man destined to supplant him; the young woman torn between her loyalty to her aged husband and her love for his rival; the young man balancing the demands of loyalty to his sovereign with the rewards of true love. This beautiful production forgoes the legend's usual elements of magic and fantasy, leaving Merlin the Magician completely out of the picture.