First Knight

(Jerry Zucker, USA, 1995)


Things start going very wrong with First Knight in its first minute.

After a dreary written prologue has scrolled away, we are introduced to lone Lancelot (Richard Gere) in all his rogue glory, sword fighting for pennies in a tawdry town square. Everything about Gere screams late twentieth century – his banter, his nervous energy, his streetwise charm, everything that makes him so appealing in contemporary vehicles like Breathless (1983).

The heart instantly sinks: it seems as if we are in for a re-run of King David (1985), the great disaster of Gere’s career. Yet it would be unfair to assume that Gere cannot fit into period pieces – alongside Jodie Foster in Sommersby (1993), he was terrific. Ultimately there is no rule worth following concerning which actors (or acting styles) are suitable or not for historical drama. What Orson Welles once said of Shakespearian adaptation holds good here, too: “Whichever way you can play it, as long as it works, is right”.

However, since First Knight does not work at all, one is justified in asking why Gere registers so badly in it. Director Jerry Zucker (Ghost, 1990) has not learnt the lesson of John Boorman’s magisterial Excalibur (1981) – a controversial Arthurian adaptation which I utterly adore. This lesson is simple: if you want to make a pop, energetic period piece, you have to stylise every element in this direction.

Zucker, however, just plops the manic Gere down inside an extremely stately, old-fashioned historical drama, surrounding him with the best of British actors (Julia Ormond and John Gielgud) and a dogged script by William Nicholson (Shadowlands, 1993). Everything in this film creaks: slow narrative moves, suffocatingly picturesque photography, and sombre lines of dialogue (“There was once a man who loved you too much to change you”).

It is hard to believe that so much life and drama can be drained out of the story of Camelot. It has been told in so many ways (epic, musical, minimalist) and yet it can still retain its mythic power. But First Knight systematically fluffs each and every one of the legend’s magic ingredients.

The love of Lancelot and Guinevere expresses no transgressive thrill, no longing, just as the anguish of King Arthur (Sean Connery) carries no pathos. The knights’ code of brotherly honour is merely gestured to rather than dramatised, and their beloved Camelot is just a large, twinkling set. The evil Malagant (Ben Cross) is presented as merely a disrespectful scoundrel, snarling with cartoonish villainy.

And of course there’s Gere as fearless Lancelot, almost a hippie hero on horseback – stealing a kiss, grimacing through painful childhood memories, taunting his opponents. At the high point of this film’s ill-judged absurdity, Lancelot cuts a dashing course though the multiple, whirling punch-bags and deadly blades of a gauntlet.

This fanciful prop adds nothing to First Knight, but it should have been purchased by the producers of that fine TV game show of the mid ’90s, Gladiators.

© Adrian Martin July 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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