Aside from casting Richard Gere as Lancelot, First Knight marches out as an agreeably intelligent, mature and well-mounted telling of the legendary King Arthur story.
Guinevere (Julia Ormond) is presented as the Lady of Leonesse, the overseer of a peaceful land that is easily sacked by the seethingly villainous Malagant (Ben Cross), a former knight of Arthur’s Round Table who now treacherously seeks power for himself. On her way to take King Arthur’s hand in a marriage, Guinevere is attacked by Malagant and is saved only through the intercession of Lancelot (Gere).
This Lancelot is not a courtly gentleman of the highest moral standards, but a sort of wandering samurai warrior who goes wherever his sword (or, in this case, his libido) leads him. Within moments of the rescue, Lancelot comes on strong to Guinevere, but, after just one kiss, she makes him promise he’ll never do that again and moves on to her pointed rendezvous with Arthur (Sean Connery) in Camelot.
But serene contentment is not to be theirs, as Malagant snatches Guinevere from Camelot and hides her in a horrific dungeon from which Lancelot, miraculously, is able to rescue her. This gives him yet another opportunity to seduce the as yet unmarried lady, but, once again, she resists.
Literate, sober minded and almost rigorously chaste, First Knight sweeps the viewer up in the doings of these impressive, larger-than-life characters. The only fly in the ointment is Gere, whose preening air of self-satisfied cockiness clashes hopelessly with the classy style displayed by the other actors. By contrast, Connery is a dream King Arthur, perfect as a man of exceptional character, purpose and righteousness. Ormond is a great match for him as Guinevere, on whom she bestows a becoming level-headedness and rationality.