SURELY, THEY JOUST
Without seeing First Knight again--which I'm in no rush to--I can't be sure, but I thought I heard King Arthur say, "Nope." Somebody asks a question of Arthur, played by Sean Connery, and he responds in the negative by saying "nope." If I heard wrong, then my apologies to Connery, but it ought to be true whether it is or not. "Nope" gives a good picture of First Knight--not just the anachronism, but the indifferent tone of anachronism. The movie doesn't take place in Neverland, but in Whateverland.
A cheerfully relaxed attitude toward historical fidelity can be liberating in a costumer, such as the recent Braveheart. Besides, in the case of Arthurian stories, it could be argued that since they're legends anyway, they needn't hew to any sense of period. Maybe so, but it's reasonable to ask that we not be able to sense the presence of the stars' trailers 50 feet off camera, as we can in First Knight.
It's clear that First Knight's director Jerry Zucker is sincere--he wants our hearts to soar. He and the screenwriter, William Nicholson (Shadowlands), are trying for plainsong poetry that will give the old Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle a modern idiom. It's only the actors--Connery, Richard Gere as Lancelot and Julia Ormond as Guinevere--who seem aware of what a laughably ersatz and reductive retelling this is.
In this version, Artie gambles on heartbreak with his much-younger bride, who loves him but marries him less for love than for military alliance. She can't deny her glandular response to the hunky Lance who repeatedly rescues her from peril. But the title knight, here a traveling swordsman-for-hire, won't allow himself to feel love because--you guessed it--he has a tragedy in his past.
I didn't mind sitting through First Knight. To his credit, Zucker at least keeps it moving, and the film actually works quite well on a Saturday-matinee level whenever there's a battle or ambush or chase going on, which is often. It's only when the actors have to open their mouths and vomit forth the Nicholsonisms with which they've been saddled that you can see that look in their eyes that says, "Once this take is over, I'm calling my agent."
Whenever the characters, ambling through those sparkling-clean castles, start to speak, we're immediately at a Renaissance Faire.
The only excruciating performance is by Ormond, that baffling Brit import. She has one scene where she shows some sensuality, drinking water from fern leaves--she even cracks a smile. And she seems properly impressed to be acting alongside the 91-year-old John Gielgud, who has a bit as her adviser. Otherwise, Ormond's of such sullen charmlessness that even Gere seems pretty lively by comparison.
Connery, Gere and Ben Cross as the trumped-up heavy all do as little as possible and get through the picture more or less unscathed, although it's touch and go for Connery at one point. Kneeling in prayer for strength after he's learned of his lady's passion for another, he looks heavenward and wails, "Why?" As laid-back as Connery has been up to that point, one feels sure that he must have startled the Almighty.
The irony in all this is that Zucker made his name in movies as part of the team responsible for lowbrow genre parodies like Airplane! and the Naked Gun films. Starting with the expository opening crawl, scene after scene of First Knight seems like the setup for some silly joke that doesn't come. Maybe if Zucker had brought in Leslie Nielsen as Merlin or Priscilla Presley as Morgan LeFay, the picture might have kept moving. But did he? The answer, I regret to say, is nope.
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