Judge Clark Douglas has enough trouble pulling weeds from the ground, much less swords from stones.
Our review of First Knight, published April 24th, 1999, is also available.
For Honor. For Love. For Camelot.
"I command you now…all…to fight! Fight like you've never fought before! Never surrender! Never surrender! Fight!"—King Arthur, just before getting shot with an arrow
Facts of the Case
This particular Arthurian tale opens not with Arthur himself, but with Lancelot (Richard Gere, The Hoax). Lancelot is not a gallant knight just yet, but an ordinary peasant who makes his money by sword fighting all challengers. While wandering through the woods one day, Lancelot rescues the lovely Guinevere (Julia Ormond, Sabrina) from a band of villains led by the evil Prince Malagant (Ben Cross, Chariots of Fire). A brief connection is made between Lancelot and the princess, but their paths must split. Guinevere is engaged to be married to the noble and wise King Arthur (Sean Connery, Goldfinger).
Things get complicated when Arthur himself sees a display of bravery by Lancelot, and determines to make Lancelot a part of the round table. Guinevere finds herself torn between the exciting Lancelot and the good-hearted Arthur, but she is torn away from both of them by Prince Malagant, who holds her hostage for political gain. Can Arthur's forces defeat Malagant? Can Lancelot successfully rescue Guinevere? Will this rather mediocre medieval tale get a significant boost from the magical visual powers of Blu-Ray? Let's examine the case.
Personally, I think there's a genuinely remarkable film series waiting to be made from Arthurian legends. There are so many fascinating stories and elements, and ingredients that dig into the realms of magic, fantasy, and humanity. Somehow, no one has really managed to get things quite right. The films that include the elements of magic and fantasy tend to be sloppy and messy, while those that stick to the human elements tend to lack the fascination that you would expect. First Knight falls into the latter category and seems to avoid the well-known mythology even more persistently than Jerry Bruckheimer's take on this tale, King Arthur.
Those who are familiar with the original stories of King Arthur and Lancelot may find themselves very depressed while watching this film. They have been reduced to figures in a dull and formulaic love triangle that is occasionally interrupted by dull and formulaic battle scenes. Nothing here is particularly horrible; it's all just so ordinary and recycled that it will be of little interest to many viewers. The film was directed by Jerry Zucker, who also directed Rat Race, Ghost, and Airplane!. Unfortunately, First Knight is as silly as all of those.
Perhaps the biggest problem here is the cast. Most of the characters are simply very difficult to care about or root for. Richard Gere comes across as a self-involved blank space as Lancelot. He may be a pretty capable hero, but he's just plain dull, and it's hard to see what Guinevere sees in him. Of course, she's not all that interesting, either. She's nothing more than a semi-capable damsel in distress, getting tossed around from one man to another by the plot. Julia Ormond (who underwent similar plot treatment in Sabrina) does what she can, but Guinevere is just poorly written. The villainous Malagant is about as one-dimensional a villain as you can get, and Ben Cross tries valiantly to remove any shred of personality from the character.
You would expect such technical elements as costume and set design to be impressive in a big-budget effort like this, but these are surprisingly disappointing. There are moments when Camelot seems far too much like a set, and many of the costumes seem suspiciously out of place. What's here often resembles what you might see at a local renaissance festival. Part of the problem comes from the fact that all the clothes here seem much too neat and clean, as if everyone in Camelot had just gone to the Laundromat. This is even true during the battle scenes…which, I might add, are far less impressively staged than those of Braveheart or Rob Roy, released the same year.
While we're speaking of visual things, let's touch on the 1080p transfer. Yes, it obviously looks much better than it ever has on DVD. But First Knight doesn't compare too well to other films released around the same period. There's a lot of grain in some scenes, and some small scratches here and there. The visuals frequently seem a bit flat, though there are semi-regular punctuations of visual brilliance that slip through from time to time. The audio is mostly very strong, though I was a little disappointed by the mix during a couple of scenes. During the big battle moments, the clanging sound effects more or less drown out Jerry Goldsmith's terrific score, which is a shame.
Extras are generous, though not necessarily interesting. Three featurettes run about an hour combined, but two of these are rather uninformative EPK-style pieces, while one is an irrelevant (but strangely amusing) look at a group of geeky warrior wannabes attempting to learn how to fight like medieval knights. These are all in standard definition, but four interesting deleted scenes are presented in 1080p. There are two commentaries here, too. The first, by Zucker and producer Hunt Lowry is a bit dull and self-congratulatory. The second, featuring professor Corey James Rushton, is much more interesting. Rushton looks at the film from a purely literary perspective, examining the liberties it takes with Arthurian legend. He is unafraid to criticize the film on any point, and this is a refreshingly candid track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
First Knight has two elements that do everything in their power to try to save this mess. The first is the score by composer Jerry Goldsmith, who contributed one of his best efforts of the 1990s for this film. It's a rousing, memorable score with no less than three great primary themes (for Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot) along with some blazing action music for the battle scenes. When Goldsmith is permitted to work his magic, you can be temporarily tricked into thinking you're watching a very good film.
The second element is the performance of Sean Connery as King Arthur. Connery is nothing short of splendid in the role, creating a character so convincing and sympathetic that it becomes impossible to root for Lancelot. I don't think this was supposed to be the case, but Gere simply vanishes whenever he shares the screen with Connery. Most of the dialogue in the film is laughable, but Connery sells every word that he says. There is passion, conviction, and feeling in this performance, and the movie comes to life whenever Connery is onscreen. First Knight may not be the definitive Arthurian film, but apparently nobody told Sir Connery. It is a shame that such a great performance is stuck inside such a weak film.
If you're a diehard fan of Sean Connery, this one is worth a watch. Otherwise, you're better off avoiding First Knight and checking out the slightly superior (but still problematic) King Arthur. If you all ready own the film and like it, proceed with caution before double-dipping on the Blu-Ray version. Sure, it's the best-looking one out there, but the source material used to create the transfer is a bit too weak to merit an additional $30 investment. As for myself, I'm just going to keep waiting for someone to make a truly great film out of this material.
The film is guilty, but Sean Connery and Jerry Goldsmith are free to go due to their above-par contributions.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Pictures
• Commentary with director Jerry Zucker and producer Hunt Lowry
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