First Knight

First Knight
1995 brought a revival of historical films: “Braveheart”, “Rob Roy” and this retooling of the King Arthur legend, “First Knight”. There is no Merlin, no Lady of the Lake, no isle of Avalon and no Mordred in this movie. However, there is still Camelot, the Round Table and the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle.

By the time we meet Arthur (played the kingly-looking Sean Connery), he is in late middle age and looking to settle down after so years of fighting wars. While Camelot enjoys peace, the nearby kingdom of Lyonness is having serious trouble with its neighbour, the perpetually sneering Prince Melagant (Ben Cross) a former knight of Arthur’s Round Table. When the villainous prince’s men burn down a Lyonness village, the survivors appeal for help to their ruler Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond). Partly to protect her kingdom and partly because she admires him, Guinevere decides to marry the much older Arthur.

On her way to Camelot for the wedding, armed men attack Guinevere’s entourage. Though she escapes, the bad guys eventually corner Guinevere. Luckily for her, soldier of fortune/itinerant knight Lancelot (Richard Gere) is nearby to rescue the fair maiden. It’s pretty much love at first sight for the two. The roguish Lancelot takes a kiss as his price for rescue and a rattled Guinevere, mindful of her commitment to Arthur, tells him never to do that again, if he has any honour. Amused, Lancelot replies she’ll be asking for another kiss before midsummer then rides away. And so the triangle begins to take shape.

The two meet again when Lancelot successfully runs a cool-looking mechanical “gauntlet” of swinging axes and tilting plankways, part of the public pre-celebration of the king’s marriage. The prize is a kiss from the soon-to-be queen but she refuses. Lancelot again rescues Guinevere from a sticky situation by kissing her hand and making a gallant little speech. Now Lancelot has been noticed by Arthur. He gains even more attention when he rescues Guinevere again.

This time she’s captured and held prisoner by Melagant on a ledge of an ancient castle, her gown ripped off, and dressed only in a shift. Things get a bit tempting when Guinevere and Lancelot are caught in a rainstorm and their attraction deepens. When Arthur makes Lancelot an offer he can’t refuse (joining the Round Table), the potential love affair plot thickens. It’s a dilemma; Guinevere and Lancelot both admire and love Arthur but are caught in their forbidden passion for each other. Finally the inevitable happens and Arthur catches his “first knight” in the embrace of his new wife. Jealousy overrides reason and he puts them on trial for treason. And catching Arthur with his armour off (figuratively speaking) is what Melagant has been waiting for.

Shot in both Wales and England, the film’s scenery is beautiful but there’s something off about the actual sets and costuming. They look too new and Hollywood-clean. One scene that really looks “off” occurs when Lancelot shows Guinevere Camelot at night, lit up like a modern day city. Even if the residents lit every candle made on the island, Camelot still couldn’t sparkle that brightly.

Sean Connery makes a regal King Arthur and Julia Ormond is fine as the feisty but torn-between-two-lovers Guinevere. Richard Gere is another matter, playing Lancelot more as a modern-day studmuffin. And as the one-note villain of the piece, Ben Cross gives a one-note performance. He scowls, sneers, bullies the fair Guinevere and his own men equally. How such a man was ever a knight of the Round Table is beyond me. He may once have been different but there is no real explanation as to why he turned from honourable to evil.

However, flaws aside, “First Knight” is an entertaining popcorn flick, with its swordfights, romantic moral dilemma (will they or won’t they) and action scenes (especially a battle fought by moonlight). At its heart, it’s all about love in its different forms. Rated PG-13, the movie runs about 112 minutes.

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