Any popular story that exists within the public domain is bound to be adapted countless times, and Arthurian mythology has been an inspiration for filmmakers for over a century. David Lowery’s meditative adaptation of the Sir Gawain story in The Green Knight is one of the best films of 2021, but it's not the only great film that stems from Arthurian legend. John Boorman’s R-Rated epic Excalibur, the classic musical Camelot, Disney’s animated gem The Sword and the Stone, and the comedy masterpiece Monty Python and the Holy Grail are just a few of the wildly different approaches to the beloved characters Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Merlin.
1995’s First Knight isn’t held in the same regard. The film was lost within the shuffle of 90s medieval epics like Braveheart and Rob Roy, as the slower romantic take didn’t boast the elaborate action sequences some may have expected. However, the beauty of mythology is that it's open to different interpretations, even ones that feature Richard Gere butchering an English accent. First Knight is gleefully sincere in its silliness, and it's worth appreciating as an example of 90s melodrama at its finest.
The film is told through the perspective of a woefully miscast (but earnestly sincere) Gere as Lancelot, reimagined as a Han Solo-esque wanderer who exchanges his swordplay for bountiful rewards. Hardly a character of nobility, Gere’s Lancelot gets a taste of the prospects of royalty through a chance woodland encounter where he saves the life of the fair maiden Guinevere (Julia Ormand). Impressed with his swordsmanship but not his romantic gestures (or maybe it's Gere’s weirdly deep V-necks?), Guinevere nonetheless invites the freewheeling scoundrel to Camelot.
Of course, it’s here where Lancelot learns the eventuality that the audience knew from the beginning: Guinevere is set to wed King Arthur (Sean Connery). It's admittedly kind of hilarious that the film treats it as a twist, but simplifying centuries of intricate lore into a simple love triangle satisfies what First Knight is going for. It's not trying to be a sweeping epic that grapples with themes of destiny, but rather a fun “who will she pick?”
Yet in the style of 90s romances, Guinevere’s longing is treated with unwinking seriousness- First Knight has all the sprawling embraces of Legends of the Fall with the PG-13 constraints of something like Notting Hill. It’s remarkable that director Jerry Zucker, primarily known for comedies like Airplane and Top Secret!, didn’t attempt something more winking, but it works for a film that’s mostly unshackled from the burdens of mythology. This isn’t aimed at scholars fact-checking the bloodlines or examining their medieval maps; it’s just for anyone who thinks Richard Gere is hot.
The film isn’t completely dedicated to longing stares between Gere and Ormand (although there are many), as it sets up a compelling dynamic between Lancelot and Arthur. The noble ruler doesn’t exactly approve of a valiant warrior that’s “for hire,” but he admires Lancelot’s fearlessness and suspects that the perspective of someone who wasn’t born into nobility might be needed within the Round Table. Gere’s Lancelot gets to playfully jab at the grandeur of Camelot, but he still does grow wide-eyed at the spectacle.
Arthur’s prospects of a brotherhood of warriors dedicated to honor is an appealing novelty to the self-professed loner that’s only ever fought for himself. The luxurious pacing allows Gere and Connery time to converse about Camelot’s importance in maintaining peace. It’s a good way to not immediately place the two at odds with each other, and it helps develop Lancelot’s fast tracked ascension into knighthood.
It’s not all romantic squabbles, as Camelot’s fragile political state is threatened by the merciless attacks of former Round Table member Malagant (Ben Cross, who we tragically lost earlier this year). Cross plays Malagant’s banal evilness with appropriate campinees. There’s nothing about him that’s sympathetic or attempting to court audience sympathy through a tragic origin story; he’s simply a force of destruction who relishes in torturing innocent villages and capturing Guinevere for cruelty’s sake alone. Cross chews the scenery and his final duel with Lancelot actually boasts some impressive choreography for a film that’s mostly centered on swooning.
No one would ever mistake Gere for a French Knight, but he’s actually pretty good at showing a newly humbled renegade whose freewheeling spirit sticks out like a sore thumb within the formal environment. It's unfortunate that Gere didn’t do a lot of action roles during this stage of his career, because he’s able to convincingly stand up to Connery as both a physical presence and in carrying dramatic weight.
Connery had fully transitioned into grizzled mentor roles at this stage (this came one year prior to The Rock), but thankfully he’s not on autopilot and still gives Arthur’s rousing speeches. Arthur’s final call to action during the climactic action sequence inspires goosebumps. Ormand does her best to give Guinevere agency within a role that’s underwritten. She’s able to incorporate the character’s political considerations, even if she spends most of the film trying to decide between the competing lusts of two men. It’s impressive that Ormand brings dignity to moments when she’s completely objectified, particularly during her hapless capture at the hands of Malagant.
The sets range in their believability, with some interior castle shots that look closer to a high school theater production of Camelot than the medieval epics of the post-Game of Thrones era. However, the gorgeous score from the great Jerry Goldsmith elevates a lot of the dodgiest locations; even if you’re watching Gere’s stunt double run around what’s clearly a Pinewood Studios backlot, it sure feels more epic.
Arthurian legend deserves a proper serious adaptation, but considering how many already exist, there’s room for a cheesy crowd pleaser too. It’s almost quaint how much of the larger mythology First Knight leaves out; there’s no mention of Merlin, the sword in the stone, or the Holy Grail, and keeping the story isolated to one specific Arthurian storyline is the right approach. Sexy, goofy, and just action-packed enough to justify a 134 minute runtime, First Knight is an addition to the medieval film canon worth rediscovering.
KEEP READING: Before 'The Green Knight', There Was the Madness of the R-Rated 'Excalibur'
“I bet you're sitting on some pretty big words when you need them."
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