FIRST KNIGHT (1995) ** 1/4 Directed and co-produced by Jerry Zucker. Written by William Nicholson. Photography, Adam Greenberg. Editing, Walter Murch. Production design, John Box. Music, Jerry Goldsmith. Cast: Sean Connery (King Arthur), Richard Gere (Lancelot) Julia Ormond (Guinevere), Ben Cross (Malagant), et al. A Columbia release. 135 minutes. Rated PG-13 (battle violence)
In this fantasy Lancelot rescues Guinevere from villains on her way to marry Arthur and falls in love with her. She reciprocates, though willing to wed Arthur, which she does. Lancelot rescues her again, becomes a Knight of the Round Table and gets into trouble when caught by Arthur in a passionate kiss with the Queen.
Some notes in the dark and thoughts in the light of day.
Guinevere is the Lady of Leonesse, which seems to a be a village a gallop away from King Arthur's Camelot. Her late dad and Arthur were friends and Papa wished that she marry Arthur. She is victimized by the raids of another neighbor, Sir (Prince?) Malagant, an apostate Knight of the Round Table. He is played by Ben Cross who, in "Chariots of Fire" was the Jewish student-runner Abrahams.
Lancelot is a kind of an Easy Rider or Road Warrior, like --said Richard Gere --" a traveling samurai who doesn't care if he lives or dies." Or like a wanderer, a Knight Errant. But if to err is human, it is hard to forgive the casting of Gere.
Gere is inexplicable as a four-star sex symbol. Of his two dozen features, just one stands out : "Days of Heaven," (1978) a masterpiece in which Gere had his first leading role and a good one too. His other movies run from weak to debatable, except for "Pretty Woman" (1990). Oddly, many of those films were by otherwise top directors. In 1991 Gere had a small, simpatico, but unappreciated part in Akira Kurosawa's "Rhapsody in August." And in the excellent TV movie on AIDS "And the Band Played On," Gere made two short, subdued and touching appearances as an HIV-positive choreographer. The Gere case gets curiouser and curiouser.
(In 1982 the French photographer/director Raymond Depardon made the hilarious documentary "Reporters" in which, among other segments, media people chased after celebrity Gere. Gere, while avoiding the press, was most ridiculous. In the same film Jacques Chirac, now President of France and then candidate for another office -- I forget which-- was also ridiculed for his unctuous, vague tactics.)
Of late, slightly strabistic Gere seems to be cast with female stars with funny noses, Julia Roberts and Julia Ormond. In "First Knight," he is introduced as a swordsman, as superior and flamboyant as Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's samurai movies or Errol Flynn in swashbucklers. Gere's oral skills are closer to the grunting Mifune than to the loquacious Flynn. They keep underlining (along with everything else, including his accent) Gere's Americanness.
When Guinevere and escort are Camelot-bound, Malagant attacks twice. Malagant, the movie's heavy, wants more than Leonesse, he wants to replace King Arthur. He is The Man Who Would Be King to quote that great Connery movie.
In the initial rescue, it's love at first sight for Lancelot, or perhaps lust at first fight since Gere plays his attraction to Ormond more like a coarse, abrupt pickup than as romantic fascination. His "courtship" is all wrong. The script ignores that very special medieval courtly love that manifested itself with indirection, allusions, suggestions and symbolism. How crass the change.
The fights are the best parts of the film, beautifully staged, choreographed and photographed. Their most eye-catching aspect is that Malagant's men use the oddest, cutest and deadliest little crossbows, not much larger than the biggest of Dirty Harry's revolvers, and fired with one hand, exactly like a handgun. They are to regular crossbows what a derringer is to a long pistol. This is a first in films and perhaps in armory. Curiouser and curiouser.
When Guinevere reaches Arthur, there's a long double line of Camelotians holding torches. Unfortunately, they bring to mind Nazis on parade or the KKK. In the background rises the Utopian city of Camelot with a thousand points of light as President Bush would say. Dozens of windows are illuminated by more torches that must draw 200 watts each. This too pretty sight calls attention to its nature, cardboard miniatures. And in town, Guinevere and the King are welcomed with petals that look like a ticker-tape parade. (Later, at their wedding, a flower-girl appears to be throwing around potato chips, but these are petals too).
King Arthur, blesh him, shpeaks with Sean Connery's familiar voish even when he whishpers shibilants. He's kind to Guinevere and repeatedly ready to free her from the planned marriage, but she too is nice and won't hear of it. (It's all 1990s sensibility). Guinevere is attracted to both Arthur and Lancelot, to the first Freudianly, because he is a surrogate father (Connery is 65), to the second because... well, I don't know why. Note that Gere is 46, that in the Middle Ages this was what 96 is today and anyway most men were dead by 46. But in modern terms (of which the movie is full) there ought to be no problem for Julia to choose Sean --who here has hair, rejuvenating makeup and a presence that squashes all others --over cloddish and inexpressive Richard.
Overall, the situation is less Arthurian than like the TV movie "Torn Between Two Lovers" with the late and sorely missed Lee Remick.
At Camelot, Lancelot shows his macho-ism by running the gauntlet, a ludicrous Rube Goldberg contraption of large, twirling mechanisms with things like punching bags and blades that no one could get through. But Lancelot makes it unscathed and --more exaggerations-- without the protective head and body gear that all others wear, a kind of padding that's like that worn by K9 Corps trainers of attack dogs.
By now I miss the medieval nonsense movies with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, like "The Black Shield of Falworth" and "The Vikings." At least Tony ("Yondah lies my faddah's castle") was funny-campy, as was Errol Flynn in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and other exploits. I miss too Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in the lovely, moving "Robin and Marian." Or the Arthurian phantasmagoria of "Excalibur."
Malagant abducts Guinevere, throws her in a deep dungeon (filmed at a slate mine in Wales). Lancelot re-saves her (her lipstick is noticeable) in ways less probable than, and not half as much fun as, Indiana Jones exploits. Arthur dubs Lancelot a knight. They should have dubbed the dialogue instead.
Malagant, still up to no good, lays Leonesse waste, which calls for Arthur to attack him in a superb night battle. Director Zucker says that when he was shooting it, costume designer Nana Cecchi showed him books of Paolo Uccelo reproductions and said "Look at this painting .This is what your battle should look like." It does indeed, with moonlight bouncing off metal, with closeups that don't tell you who is who in a confusion like Fabrice's at Waterloo in "The Charterhouse of Parma."
Cinematographer Adam Greenberg, a Polish native who grew up in Israel and did the "Terminator" movies does his best work in "First Knight." Veteran production designer John Box (Oscars for "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago,: "Oliver!" and "Nicholas and Alexandra") and costume designer Nana Cecchi are uneven. In addition to the oddities above, Box overdoes things like the Busby Berkeley-ish Round Table. Cecchi too goes overboard with silly, identical, Ruritanian-designed "uniforms" of the Knights and her overall color-coordinated fashion-show look.
Except for the battles, the best visuals are of the Gothic craggy ruins by the sea, Malagant's lair, and a beautiful church and cloister that look entirely authentic. And of course there are always those cute mini-crossbows.