Surprising for a Hollywood film of the ’90s, political obligations and loyalty almost invariably take precedence here over carnal desires. Arthur and Guinevere are high-minded and noble in the best senses of the terms, mindful of the well-being of their subjects and the sanctity of their refined ideals above all else. In this they are ideally matched, so that the forces that serve to bring them apart and drag them down introduce the elements of genuine tragedy.
Guinevere (Ormond) is presented as the Lady of Leonesse, the overseer of a peaceful land that easily is 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 that makes great sense for her politically, Guinevere is attacked by Malagant and is saved only through the intercession of Lancelot.
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 appointed rendezvous with Arthur (Connery) in Camelot.
Lancelot follows her to the almost improbably pristine metropolis, which Arthur’s valiant years of fighting and application of principle have finally made into an oasis of civility where he now wants peace to reign. In a very affecting scene, the aging but ruggedly handsome king gives his beautiful young fiancee a way to bow out of the marriage gracefully if she doesn’t truly want it , but they end by reaffirming their love and commitment to each other.
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, and Lancelot must settle instead for an invitation from the magnanimous Arthur to join the Round Table.
Shortly after the royal wedding comes word that the vengeful Malagant has destroyed Leonesse, forcing Arthur to once again take up arms, this time with Lancelot by his side. In a stunning nighttime battle scene, Malagant is routed. But next day, when Lancelot comes to tell Guinevere he’s leaving and they finally kiss a second time, Arthur catches them in a clinch. Crestfallen at this betrayal, he charges them with treason and is in the midst of trying them publicly at Camelot when Malagant returns for a final siege on the already tarnished domain.
Literate, sober-minded and almost rigorously chaste, “First Knight” sweeps the viewer up in the doings of these impressive, larger-than-life characters and offers a credible portrait of regal personages whose priorities arewell sorted.
The only fly in the ointment is Gere, who is a far less credible Englishman than even Robert Redford in “Out of Africa” and whose preening air of self-satisfied cockiness clashes hopelessly with the classy style displayed by the other actors. Filmmakers make a halfhearted effort to excuse this by identifying Lancelot as a home-less, rootless outsider who could arguably be different from everyone else, but it doesn’t wash. Gere, who feints in the direction of British enunciation approximately twice in the picture, is simply out of place here, both diction- and attitude-wise.
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, who is written as a woman always cognizant of the primacy of her responsibility to her people and on whom Ormond bestows a becoming level-headedness and rationality.
One problem is the lack of well-defined secondary characters, normally a strong point of historically oriented British films. Although the role is one-dimensionally evil, Cross creates a compelling Malagant, a worthy foe for both Arthur and Lancelot. Aside from John Gielgud, who confers dignity upon the nothing part of Guinevere’s confidant, no one else emerges from the crowd.
Much of the film’s romanticism is supplied by Jerry Goldsmith’s lush and lustrous score. Smartly employing top hands in all departments, Zucker has secured outstanding work from vet production designer John Box, celebrated opera costume designer Nana Cecchi, lenser Adam Greenberg and editor Walter Murch. Welsh locations, notably a spectacular slate mine used as Malagant’s lair, are eye-catching, and action scenes are sharply executed without being too gory.
If only they’d found a Lancelot from England rather than New England, “First Knight” could have been a noble creation of the first order.