by Lillian Csernica on April 6, 2015
What better classic subject matter for a sword & sorcery movie than King Arthur and his noteworthy knights? The knight everyone remembers best is Sir Lancelot. Why? He’s the son of the Lady of the Lake. He has never been defeated in any battle or joust. And he broke the basic rule of chivalry by stealing Guenevere’s heart from poor King Arthur. I’ve read a few versions of the story where Lancelot and Guenevere meet first when Lancelot saves her from brigands. Lancelot is everything a young maiden could want in a stalwart hero, so it’s no wonder Arthur tends to suffer by comparison.
Nowhere is this unfortunate turn of events more obvious than in Jerry Zucker’s First Knight.
This version of the story is draws heavily on the writings of Chretien de Troyes, the man who created the character of Lancelot. If you’re looking for all the usual ingredients of an Arthurian tale, you will discover right up front that while First Knight certainly has plenty of swords, it has no sorcery.
No Lady of the Lake.
No Morgan le Fey.
What then does it have that could make anybody want to watch it? Again, we have a splendid cast. Richard Gere as Lancelot. Julia Ormond as Guinevere. Sean Connery himself as King Arthur. Ben Cross plays the bad guy, some previously unknown member of the Round Table named Sir Malagant. That name should be Malignant, because that’s what the character is. He wants Arthur’s throne and will do whatever horrible deeds required.
The story starts off with the part where Guinevere is on her way to King Arthur to marry him and bring her land of Leonesse under his protection. This is very important because Malagant has Leonesse in his sights. Guinevere’s carriage and escort get attacked by Malagant’s brigands. Lucky for Guinevere, the “vagabond and skilled swordsman Lancelot” happens upon the battle and pretends to be one more brigand hoping for his share of the spoils (nudge nudge wink wink.) He lulls the brigand holding Guinevere into lowering his guard. Not a smart move, because Guinevere has picked up a crossbow and promptly shoots the brigand right up through the belly.
Lancelot is quite taken by Guinevere. On the ride to King Arthur’s castle, the banter between knight and lady is the most entertaining part of the movie. Lancelot promises Guinevere that before sundown on the summer solstice she will ask him to kiss her. She laughs that off since by then she’ll be formally betrothed to King Arthur.
To celebrate the coming royal wedding, there’s the usual trader’s market, festival, and displays of martial skills. What this movie lacks in proper sorcery it does make up for in some impressive stunts. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to put together an obstacle course that will beat the daylights out of anybody who isn’t fast, agile, and alert. King Arthur challenges any man who thinks he’s up to the task to step forward and run the course. The man who finishes will win a most coveted prize, a kiss from the Queen-to-be. And it just so happens to be the day of the Summer Solstice.
Guess what happens next. That’s right. Lancelot hangs out in the shade watching two contestants get thumped and flung aside. What he’s really doing is estimating the timing and distance between the various obstacles. My favorite moment in the movie arrives when Lancelot is up there on the dais next to Guinevere, who has steam coming out of her ears. Here’s the dialogue, all sotto voce:
Lancelot: Ask me.
Lancelot: Ask me.
When King Arthur calls upon Guinevere to bestow the prize, Lancelot declines, claiming he is not worthy. While this is gracious and humble, it’s also the smart thing to do. King Arthur is considerably older than Guinevere, and he can already see some of the sparks that fly between his fiancee and this no-name peasant who’s good with a sword.
The other Knights of the Round Table are already put off by this commoner with pretensions to their ranks. They’re not exactly doing their jobs, because Malagant does manage to kidnap Guinevere. Lancelot disguises himself, sneaks into Malagant’s stronghold, and gets Guinevere out of there. By now he’s even more in love with her, so much so that he’s resolved to leave King Arthur’s Court rather than put Guinevere at risk. Guinevere can’t stand the thought of Lancelot leaving. This is it. This is where she swallows her pride and asks him for that kiss.
Right then, in walks King Arthur.
Now begins the incredibly stupid part of the movie. Yes, King Arthur gets upset. Yes, he demands and explanation. Does he listen? No! He goes totally ballistic and puts both Guinevere and Lancelot on trial. The Knights of the Round Table are inclined to believe Lancelot never did anything more than what the King saw, but there’s nothing reasonable about the trial. I can’t believe Sean Connery overacted that badly with such stupid, over-the-top dialogue.
Meanwhile, Malagant has taken advantage of all this uproar to stage his invasion.
Insert one-on-one fights between key knights and their particular enemies on Malagant’s side. Some live, some die. Lancelot wades into the battle and the tide turns in favor of Our Heroes. By then King Arthur is already wounded. On his deathbed, he passes the crown and the Queen to Lancelot.