The Arthurian legend, the story of Camelot, is one of the tales that has remained in our culture over the course of centuries. It has been adapted to virtually every medium and in varying degrees of success.
One of the more recent, high-profile adaptations is First Knight, directed by Jerry Zucker (Ghost) and originally released in 1995, the film has finally made its way to DVD in a “Special Edition.”
Rather than focusing on Arthur's rise to power and completely eliminating the magical element (no mention of Merlin is made), the film instead refashions the love triangle between Arthur (Sean Connery), Guinevere (Julia Ormond), and Lancelot (Richard Gere).
The movie opens with Camelot and the neighboring kingdoms being threatened by Malagant (Ben Cross), a former knight of Arthur's Round Table. Guinevere, as the ruler of a land bordering Camelot's, is engaged to Arthur. She is truly in love with him, but the marriage will also help protect her countrymen from Malagant's attacks. Guinevere encounters Lancelot on her way to Camelot (he saves her from Malagant's men), and the romance soon blooms.
The rest of the movie features Lancelot coming into his own as a knight, Guinevere struggling with her love for both men, and Arthur trying to protect his bride from the forces of evil.
The film contains enough battles, sword-fighting, and peril to keep the audience relatively amused, but the more drama-based aspects of the feature fall flat. The love between Arthur and Guinevere feels very forced, and despite the movie's trying to explain how the young lady fell for the older man, it never quite seems believable. Her love for Lancelot is more plausible, but Gere is never looks comfortable as Lancelot, which throws the love story off-kilter once more. He seems terribly middle-aged to be such a wonderful, and yet unknown, swordsman at the start of the movie and does little to convince the audience that he is worthy of either Arthur's trust and friendship or Guinevere's love.
With Ormond as a wonderful Guinevere and Connery as a good older version of Arthur, the film is not entirely miscast. Ormond's portrayal of a woman who is struggling to do right not only for herself but for her people, is one that many can relate too. The fact that she repeatedly becomes little more than a damsel in distress is something that many may find objectionable.
For his part, Connery, as a former action star, looks and feels exactly right as a battle-weary leader. He is sometimes less convincing as a man who is losing the love of his life, but his stately, somber, presence more than makes up for the shortcomings.
That being said, as a whole, First Knight seems uncomfortable in its own skin. It never fully succeeds as a love story and while the fight scenes are enjoyable, there aren't enough of them to call it an action-adventure movie.
The new “Special Edition” release of the film contains several behind-the-scenes featurettes, audio commentary with Jerry Zucker and producer Hunt Lowry, as well as deleted/extended scenes. While nominally interesting, there is nothing overly dramatic in any of the features, and the sound in some of the featurettes is horribly muffled.
In the final summation, First Knight has so many of the elements necessary to make a great movie – it has wonderful actors, a great story to tell, romance, and action. However, much like the “green screen” scenes in the movie itself, it just feels fake and overdone. The inauthentic look of the green screen work, like the dramatic scenes in the film, only serve to remove the audience from the piece rather than draw them in. First Knight is certainly watchable, but those looking for an Arthur story can find far better.