Did First Knight start life as a comedy? Obviously, it finished up as one (unintentionally). How did it come by a title that appears to be a bad pun on stagecraft (but with no good reason)? Nigh on every aspect of Jerry Zucker’s follow-up to Ghost is a bust, from the script, to the cast, to the costumes, to (yes) the direction. It’s as if all concerned laboured under the perverse desire to manifest the most horrendous version of Arthurian legend imaginable on a cinema screen.
Although, ignore the names Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere and you’d be understandably surprised to learn that these characters are intended to represent their mythic counterparts. True, there’s Camelot and the Round Table. And Malagant features in some stories. But there’s no Merlin, no Holy Grail, no Morgana. Excalibur remains unnamed. This is a land devoid of mythmaking, shorn of fantasy, lyricism and poetry. In their place, the lumbering and literal. Arthur is an old man, marrying for the first time. Lancelot is a wandering mercenary, who meets Guinevere before the king. I don’t make great demands at fidelity to the source material; there are quite enough variations of Arthurian lore from myriad different authors. Easily sufficient to stake a claim for legitimacy of a distinctive take. Make whatever changes you want in the service of a compelling tale (God knows, Excalibur has its occasional problems as a result Boorman sticking to bits of text he should have excised). I just have no idea why anyone would gut the story of everything that compels or strokes the imagination. All that’s left is a ten-a-penny love triangle. One which proceeds to die on its arse.
In part, this is why I wonder about the comedy element. The script is so threadbare, you doubt there was a serious interest in the Arthur; the Dudley Moore version, perhaps. There’s also the suspicious presence of two of the credited storywriters; Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton are almost exclusively known for their comedy work. The finished screenplay is by William Nicholson, who would go on to contribute to Gladiator amongst other patchy works. The production went through a variety of permutations of possible stars and helmers (including Bond director Terence Young), before ending up in the malformed state we find it.
Not content with desecrating the story, there are the aesthetic elements to content with. The knights wear a combination of spandex and quilted knitwear (knightwear?); all of it blue. As others have pointed out, it’s as if the main source of inspiration for the costume designers was Star Trek: The Next Generation. On top of such apparel comes the armour, which resembles oversized Lego, only more plasticky. John Gielgud looks like he bought his outfit at John Lewis.
And everything is shockingly clean. Not for Zucker the mud and squalor of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Nor for him the blood and fog of Excalibur. Camelot is disastrously overlit, as if the paint’s not yet dry. It proudly displays itself in pastel colours, airy and devoid of atmosphere. There’s no texture or shade. It’s a Disneyland castle.
But who knows; with a shrewdly cast trio of leads, perhaps it could have struggled towards something semi-respectable. Anyone fearing that Richard Gere, Julia Ormond and Sean Connery seemed a bizarre mismatch of ages and styles needed only recall that Zucker had score the biggest hit of 1990 with two leads audiences tended to give short shrift. Alas, this time his vision wasn’t so much skewed as boss-eyed.
Richard Gere is an absolutely horrid sight, and hilariously miscast. You could imagine him in one of brother David’s spoofs or a Mel Brooks effort; he’s absurdly inappropriate to every aspect of Lancelot. True, failing to disguise your accent did Kevin Costner no harm in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And I suspect this was in the back of the producers’ minds when the cast an American lead. But Gere isn’t just adrift of voice; he’s hopeless in the action scenes. And limp at the romance. There’s a shot during the climactic battle where he is galvanising himself atop his steed, in slow motion, and it appears that he is succumbing to an onslaught of indigestion. He dives off castle parapets like a man whose stuntman hates him (and then appears to engage in burst of water-skiing), runs the gauntlet in a somnambulist stupor, and you’d swear he’d never worked with a fight choreographer before. Apparently, he revealed on set that this would be his last action role, but I’m trying to think of one where he actually tried to swashle his buck before (King David?)
His approach to romance is doubtless intended to be of the charming rogue variety, hence a jerky line like, “I can tell when a woman wants me I can see it in her eyes”. That might work if you’re Harrison Ford as Han Solo, with a deportment of self-conscious swagger behind you. If you’re Gere, that charmless man, it just makes you a complete tosser. Especially when your seductive move is to attempt to suck Guinevere’s entire head into your lower lip. I know, you’ll tell me he was stud-dom personified in the likes of An Officer and a Gentleman, but I’m suspicious of this. I suspect his success there was more by luck than magnetism.
The Pretty Woman star, who is most expressedly not a hamster smuggler, here appears to be to be attempting some of the upbeat jollity of Tom Cruise. Which can be infuriating enough when little Tom is at it (I’m thinking vintage, over-excitable Tom, here, the chap with a toothsome grin so piercing it could blind panthers), but an actor who doesn’t possess that energy level looks like a prat. And an even bigger one with his dye-perm and seeming inability to walk naturally. He appears slouchy and graceless next to his co-stars. It really looks like he can’t be bothered. Perhaps he thought they hired him to be Richard Gere (whoever that is) rather than Lancelot. Gere only succeeds in showing the world that his range is as narrow as his pointy little eyes. Which blink a little more than we’re used to when he suffers some obligatory childhood flashbacks, but that’s about as emotional as he gets.
It seems Sean Connery didn’t much appreciate tardy Richard, and chewed him out on the first day for his lateness. There’s zero chemistry between them; not even the tension of butting heads (as you can see between Connery and Hoffman in Family Business). It’s as if Sean took one look at the joker he was stuck sharing scenes with and decided it was hopeless. Usually you can count on Sean to deliver, in even the stodgiest of fare. Here, he’s a little bit dull. Not helping matters is that Arthur is written as an utterly unpersuasive monarch, mouthing platitudes and showing how he is remarkably progressive emotionally (it’s one of those movies where late twentieth century values are alive and well in the sixth, , leaving the king looking like a big wuss). If Arthur had a pair of balls, instead of torturing himself over what to do (“As a man I may forgive, but as a king I must see justice done”; fortunately Ben Cross is about to save you any difficult choices), Connery might have upped his game., but it’s as difficult to see why he takes Lancelot to his bosom as it is to fathom Guinevere’s love for du Lac (and no, I’m not sure if Lancelot is supposed to be French in this). I hope Connery was working on his swing between takes, as nothing else followed through. You don’t often laugh at the Scot, but when he utters a desperate cry to God of “Why? WHHHYYYYYYY?!!” mirth is the only defence.
Julia Ormond had two or three years when there was buzz that she’d be a next big thing. I could never see it; she’s a decent actress, but she’s not a star. She doesn’t exude, or whatever it is stars are supposed to do. She’s unable to sell the idea that she’s fallen for Dick, but I don’t think she can really be blamed for that. She doesn’t fare well with Connery either, suggesting that the problems were deep within the carcass of the production. One can’t even work up a critique of Arthur’s dubious disposition, since he has clearly nurtured feelings for Guinevere since she was a highly inappropriate age. That may have been just an everyday part of life in the sixth century – and, we learn, to the TV kings of the late twentieth – but this is a highly revisionist take, so you can’t use that excuse. Ormond recites her lines like they’re Shakespeare. Unfortunately, they’re just piffle. Her best showing is her first scene, where she proves reasonably adept a kicking a pigskin around.
We should be grateful for Ben Cross then, enjoying his chance to bask in the glory of Brit villainy in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. It’s not that he’s especially great, but he is awake. And his contempt for henchman Ralf (Ralph Ineson) raises the occasional chuckle. He was obviously into the part, as he clearly hasn’t washed his face for a couple of months. Malagant sounds like a made-up villain but his status as kidnapper of Guinevere is fairly well entrenched in Arthurian lore. His cry of “Burn everything” made me wistful for Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham. Liam Cunningham is fairly non-descript, and apparently Buffy/Angel actor Alex Denisof is one of the tepid Knights of the Round Table. Rob Brydon makes more of an impression than any of them, and he only features as an extra in the first scene. It’s all downhill from there. When a wretched child asks Lancelot, “Can I go home now?” the sad response is “Alas, there are another thirty minutes left”.
It occurs to me, based on the rabid right-winger bent of at least one of the Zuckers (apologies if I’m tarring Jerry with David’s brush; the latter poured all his energies into a “comedy” taking facile pot-shots at Michael Moore), that there might have been some contemporary subtext to this take on Camelot. Perhaps America as the world’s policeman wasn’t quite such a pervasive idea in the mid-90s, but there’d already been one Gulf War as a warm-up exercise. This King Arthur is most definitely an interventionist king; Malagant takes him to task on this very issue, asking, “Is the law of Camelot to rule the entire World?” If we consider that Arthur is fashioned as a well-intentioned and humanitarian figure, then surely his plans to bring the “entire world” to heel are “good” ones? Also of note is that Malagant lives in a cave, and emerges to wreak destruction in the “civilised” world. Very prescient, Jerry. Arthur brandishes the illusion of the democratic process; all are equal at the Round Table, but when it comes down to his whims, he rejects any notional veto on bringing Lancelot on as a knight (he’s right in the end, of course; mystifyingly Lancelot looks to rule the kingdom. So, Bush Jr., then?)
Something actually possessed me to see First Knight in the cinema on its released. I recalled it as pretty ropey, but it clearly didn’t hit home how ropey. There appears to be an endless appetite for witless reimaginings of this legend. It’s as if writers need to show they’re not just derivative hacks; they’re derivative hacks who sabotage all the best bits. Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur was the last notable version and, as weak as it is, it looks quite respectable sat next to this tripe. Bryan Singer was attached to an Excalibur remake for a while (Why, Bryan, why?) Then there’s David Dobkin’s on-again off-again modern reimagining Arthur & Lancelot. Why? WHHHYYYYYYY?!!