Even if it weren’t the third movie of the season to feature brave-hearted warriors of old, First Knight would still be a plunge into familiar waters. It’s yet another variation on the Camelot saga, a legend that has already been unfolded so many times, in so many ways — musicalized, Jungified, intergalacticized — that it now risks being told to death. Fortunately, Jerry Zucker, directing his first film since the 1990 smash-hit romantic fantasy Ghost (I guess he could afford to take some time off after that one), understands what he’s up against. In First Knight, he gives a story we know in our bones the benefit of his own vibrantly domesticated romantic spirit.
In Zucker’s revisionist version, King Arthur (Sean Connery), the demigod of Camelot, is a robust middle-aged warlord settling into the twilight of his valor. Arthur’s fiancée, Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond), gazes at him with affection but also a twinge of ambiguity: Is she marrying him for true love, or because he’ll protect her lands? The real wild card is Lancelot (Richard Gere), a prankishly blasé existentialist who has no peer as a swordsman, in part because he doesn’t give a damn whether he lives or dies. After he falls secretly in love with Guinevere, rescuing her — twice — from the evil Malagant (Ben Cross), a former comrade of Arthur’s, he is invited to join the Knights of the Round Table. The familiar Camelot triangle grows fraught with contemporary overtones of erotic possession. Guinevere may worship the tender, paternal Arthur, but she knows he can’t match the feelings the younger Lancelot rouses in her blood. When Arthur discovers their (unconsummated) passion, he’s like an aging lion who has lost his reason to live, and Connery takes the full measure of his broken virility.
Zucker is a filmmaker of considerable gifts. In Ghost, he made Patrick Swayze’s amorous, prancing spectre seem a kinesthetic incarnation of the next world; the fact that we believed this man could jump through subway walls is what lent the love story its amorous urgency. There’s nothing supernatural in First Knight — Merlin and his magic have been jettisoned — but Zucker shows a similar flair for wedding action to emotion. There’s a terrific scene in which Lancelot demonstrates his reckless bravado by leaping through the Gauntlet, a spectacularly lethal public obstacle course that features giant swinging axes. In the woods, Malagant’s dark knights descend upon Guinevere’s coach like a swarm of bees. The actors have been encouraged to show undercurrents of vulnerability. Connery’s Arthur prizes the democracy he’s invented in Camelot because he understands how illusory any one man’s power, including his own, really is. And Ormond, a lustrous beauty, exudes the same tremulous awareness she did in Legends of the Fall, her gaze alive with unspoken yearning. She convinces us that Guinevere loves both men, only in different ways.
It’s Lancelot’s spiritual journey, though, that forms the dramatic arc of First Knight. And the way Gere plays him, he’s a void at the center of the movie — a cipher impersonating an enigma. This flip, swaggering Lancelot is like a twist on the character Gere played (in his best performance) in An Officer and a Gentleman: the blank-souled narcissist who learns to care. Lancelot is meant to be a loner ignited first by love, then by the brotherly force of Camelot. But Gere, while great at playing blank-souled narcissists, is at a loss when he has to reveal passion. He wears the same slack expression in every scene, his tiny black sloe eyes staring out from above those beautiful cheekbones. That face is a mask, armored even when it’s naked.
Zucker may have thought he could redeem Gere’s shallowness, much as he mined a new romantic heft in the usually lightweight Patrick Swayze. The Camelot legend, though, requires an old-fashioned misty ardor that may simply be out of Gere’s range. What’s ironic is that in almost every other respect — the performances of Connery, Ormond, and the incendiary Ben Cross; the lush yet bounding images — First Knight is a success. Zucker gives the Camelot legend a makeover and rediscovers its humanizing fire. He has made a true adult fairy tale, only with a heart of glass. B-
Accessory of the Week
Talk about Battle of the Bulge. Costume designers for the summer action flicks Batman Forever, Judge Dredd, and First Knight made sure that with all those punches flying, no one, not even Robin the Boy Wonder, got kicked where it counts.