Prior to 1990, writer-director Jerry Zucker was best-known as one-third of "Z-A-Z," the trio (with brother David and Jim Abrahams) behind some of the most popular comedies of the 1980s and '90s, including Airplane and the Naked Gun movies. But Zucker's romantic fantasy Ghost (1990), a project many A-list stars turned down, became Hollywood's biggest unexpected hit in quite some time, grossing more than half a billion dollars worldwide against a reported budget of just $22 million (it likely cost significantly less than that). As a follow-up, Zucker next turned to one of the most famous love stories/love triangle in legend and literature: the relationship between King Arthur, Guinevere and Camelot's most famous knight, Sir Lancelot. First Knight (1995) has its share of problems but also a refreshingly classical approach, many finely-crafted sequences and other attributes which compensate for its shortcomings. Overall it's well above average and Sony's Blu-ray disc presents the film in the best possible light.
The film gets off to a shaky start, with Lancelot (Richard Gere) playfully taking on all comers, sword-fighting for money in a small border village near Leonesse. Lancelot is certainly adept in this sequence, which is choreographed like a cross between a Las Vegas magic show and a Japanese chanbara movie, but it's hard to accept Lancelot brandishing a heavy broadsword with the dexterity of Zatoichi.
Meanwhile, Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond) of Leonesse agrees to wed King Arthur of neighboring Camelot. Though she loves Arthur the man, there are undeniable political advantages to the marriage as knight-turned-brigand Malagant (Ben Cross), once a member of Arthur's famous Round Table, has threatened to overthrow Guinevere's vulnerable kingdom so she needs Arthur's protection.
En route to Camelot Guinevere's party is ambushed by Malagant's brigands but Lancelot rescues her. The fatalistic wanderer brashly tries to seduce her but she will have none of that, though clearly her resistance to Lancelot's charms gradually begins to weaken. In Camelot, Guinevere is met by King Arthur (Sean Connery) who later invites Lancelot to fill the seat at the Round Table vacated by Malagant. He's reluctant to accept because of the overpowering attraction he now feels toward Arthur's betrothed.
First Knight goes out on several limbs, some of which, surprisingly, work out quite well. The first was the decision to eschew entirely the grimy Middle Ages look that had become the standard approach to such films in recent years, where disheveled peasants wore rags and had rotted teeth, where castles were realistically dark and dank, and generally the kind of environment that made you glad you were living in the 21st century with all its modern conveniences.
First Knight makes no attempt, as most other Arthurian legend movies have done, to put its characters into some sort of historically valid context. Instead, the English countryside in general and Camelot in particular are unabashedly idealized; Camelot even resembles Sleeping Beauty's Castle from Disneyland. Everyone's clothes are spotless and flawlessly tailored, there are no piles of horse shit in the middle of the road, and even the dirt on the grounds of Camelot look to have been carefully washed and filtered of grime. In a year that saw the release of both Braveheart and Rob Roy, to some First Knight must have seemed painfully unrealistic, but the approach works in a classical manner akin to The Adventures of Robin Hood or Douglas Fairbanks' historical/fantasy silent films. (Interestingly, despite this magical environment, the screenplay completely avoids magical characters like Merlin and Morgan Le Fay. This, I think, has the effect of making the sanitized Camelot somehow more acceptably believable.)
The other long limb was the casting of Gere as Lancelot. In contrast to Connery and Ormond, Gere unfortunately comes across as far too contemporary a character to be believed *, though Gere's sincere performance isn't so much at fault as is William Nicholson's (Shadowlands, Gladiator) screenplay, which like nearly all movies featuring the Lancelot character (including John Boorman's Excalibur) doesn't quite know what to do with him. In First Knight Lancelot is an existentialist, fearless because he has nothing to lose: no family, no home. But, as Arthur proposes in a good scene between the two actors, "A man who fears nothing is a man who loves nothing. And if you love nothing, what joy is there in your life?"
Gere's scenes with Connery actually play better than the generally awkward attempts at romance between Gere and Ormond, though the love scenes between Connery and Ormond play well. Connery, who makes a spectacular movie star entrance 30 minutes into the film, is of course perfectly cast as Arthur, (Scottish brogue? Who cares?). Like the legendary Arthur, Connery oozes with commanding charisma, so much so that it almost works against the idea that his eventual jealously of Guinevere and Lancelot will lead to his downfall; it's difficult to believe Connery's Arthur naïve enough not to recognize the love relationship blossoming right there in front of him.
Surprisingly given Zucker's limited experience with such films, the action scenes really work. They're exciting, clever, and imaginative, the perfect blend of good cutting and compositions, some impressive stunt work and set design, with Jerry Goldsmith's score really adding to the excitement. There are a good half-dozen action highlights: the ambush on Guinevere, Lancelot's rescue of her from Malagant's cave, the climatic battle, etc. Longtime James Bond second unit director Arthur Wooster is credited in that same capacity here.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 projection using Ariflex 535 cameras and Zeiss lenses, the 1080p high-def image is actually 1.78:1, not true 1.85:1 as stated on the case. The image has good color, blacks, and contrast though grain is visible in all process shots and even some dirt in the opening titles. Conversely the image is also so sharp one can pick out anachronistic mistakes, such as a highly visible metal Phillips head screw embedded in the heavy wooden door leading to the Round Table. Overall, though the clarity of the image really shines during scenes which ask a lot from the transfer: all the forest scenes with their thick foliage, and later at Malagant's visually stunning castle-cave.
The audio, originally Dolby SR and SDDS, is presented here in an impressive array of options: English, French, and Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1, as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in Spanish and Thai, and Dolby Surround in Japanese. As you might imagine, the directional thunder of horses' hoof steps and the clanging of broadswords is the main focus here, and the mix is pretty impressive considering that given the light-speed advances in audio technologies this dozen-year-old mix is already somewhat dated. Jerry Goldsmith's exceptionally fine score fares well here also.
Menu screens and subtitles are offered in even more languages - no wonder this disc took so long to load up! - English, French, Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, and English SDH, with even the bonus material subtitled in all these languages save Korean and Arabic. On my Japanese player the menu screens defaulted to Japanese, where only the English and Japanese options were accessible.
Of the supplements, only the several minutes worth of Deleted Scenes are in 1080p high-def. Though a bit battered and worn, the crisp film-y look of these scenes is rather nice, and though all of the footage was quite rightly cut it's interesting to see.
There are three making-of documentaries, all 1.78:1 standard-def. The Quest for Camelot is a good overall featurette, exploring the film's scripting and production decisions with greater depth than usual, while The Creation of a Kingdom does more of the same on the production design end, and includes an interview with the late John Box (Lawrence of Arabia), whose last film this was. In Shining Armor: Knights in Training makes the case that First Knight offers the most historically accurate depiction of Middle Age swordplay ever in the movies, though I found fault in some of the interviewees' arguments.
The Audio Commentary with Director Jerry Zucker and Producer Hunt Lowry was unexpectedly refreshing and enjoyable. Zucker, utterly unpretentious, doesn't take the film too seriously, and is quick to recognize and point to its shortcomings, a welcome change of pace. Though an Arthurian Legend Commentary is listed on the packaging, one that this reviewer was especially looking forward to, it was nowhere to be found on the disc, at least not on the Japanese menu screens the disc defaulted to. It might very well exist via the English menu though why it would be excluded from the Japanese version is beyond me.
First Knight's major assets are that it sticks to its convictions in presenting an idealized Camelot as magical and noble as it's usually dramatized in literature if not in the movies. Connery's towering presence and the handsomely mounted production, with its strong action set pieces, compensate for the film's not insignificant shortcomings. Recommended.
* As is Ormond, at least the first time we see her, playing proto-soccer with the peasants, over-emphatically underlining her "People's Princess" unpretentiousness.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest books, Japanese Cinema and The Toho Studios Story, are now available for pre-order.