First Knight
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The success of this Robin Hood (Reynolds, 1991, see the menu on the left under Swashbuclers) paved the way for a revival of the Middle Ages in Hollywood (Rob Roy and Braveheart also came out in 1995) and it gave the Arthurian legend a new change. However, First Knight is in the light of the cinematographic developments mentioned earlier a huge disappointment. The producers avoided all risks and the result is a visually and technically overwhelming, but in every other respect half-hearted, picture.

The way Lancelot is introduced, seems to indicate that they wanted to bring a new hero to the court, but it is also the old Lancelot of the chronicles whose feelings for the queen are condemned. And there is the Swashbuckler Lancelot who has to get his girl in the end to secure a happy ending.


To solve the problems that this mixture of the traditional legend and the conventions of the Swashbuckler-genre bring about, Arthur has to be killed without hope on his return. The bier that floats on the water reminds the audience of the traditional voyage to Avalon, but then a burning arrow discards all hope.

And the kingdom does not fall: Lancelot will be the new king, with lady Guinevere on his side. This is also necessary because Camelot is, once again, depicted as the ideal American society. At one point Arthur delivers a speech that could easily be interpreted as a plea for the American intervention policy. Malagant is, in contrast, a very plain villain: just bad, nothing else.

Connery and Ormond

Sean Connery (king Arthur) and Julia Ormond (Guinevere)


First Knight sticks to the old Swashbuckler conventions by not allowing any miracles to happen. Adultery is also "not done" and therefore Guinevere is still a virgin at the end of the movie. And because these romantic developments are taken very seriously, there is not much room for a light sense of humour or irony, which is essential to a modern Swashbuckler movie.

The emphasis on the triangle Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot leaves little space for side-kicks. Apart John Gielgud in a supporting role as Guinevere's counselor, there is only room for minor characters like Ralph, Peter and Marc. The knights of the round table are as colourless as their uniform outfit suggests. The use of colour is on the other hand very effective in the depiction of the different cities and the development of Guinevere, from innocence, to Queen, to confusion about her feelings for Arthur and Lancelot.

In 1991 Robin Hood already suffered from a father complex, and here Lancelots desire for freedom is explained (negatively) by a childhood trauma. The introduction of this bit of "obvious" psychology is very abrupt, almost clumsy. Right after Lancelot starts talking about "the walls burning down" the scriptwriters or editors made a significant mistake: Guinevere talks about the fire in the church although she has no way of knowing about it.


First Knight

Richard Gere (Lancelot) and Julia Ormond (Guinevere)


There are some interesting moments during the battle for Leonesse. Lancelot throws off the suffocating helmet and fights much better on foot than on a horse like a true knight is supposed to. That is probably what the film should have done: free itself from all those suffocating cinematic and moral conventions.

Also they should have looked beyond Malory (the most obvious source for popular retellings of the legend) and find that the story they came up with had a lot in common with the original Lancelot-story of Chrétien de Troyes: the episodic adventure, a so-called "Fair Unknown" as a hero and the abduction plot. What the film lacks in comparison to Chrétien is a coherent vision on love and adultery, a magic environment and a subtle sense of irony.

The question what First Knight is like can only be answered in terms of what it is not. The movie is far too heavy-laden to be a true Swashbuckler. It is not really an episodic adventure because of Arthur's part in the story. It is clearly not an adaptation of the Arthurian chronicles to the screen. And most importantly, it lacks the sense of irony of the Chrétiens original twelfth century story and the sense of humour of a true Swashbuckler. What is left? Well, it is a slick movie, and it can be entertaining if you are in the mood for mindless action and romance.




First Knight, summary

Director: Jerry Zucker.
Starring: Sean Connery, Julia Ormond, Richard Gere.
Story: Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, William Nicholson. Screenplay: William Nicholson.
1995 Columbia Pictures

"Lancelot fights for money in a village, he defeats two challengers. The same village is burnt down by Malagant and his men. The villagers arrive in Leonesse en are welcomed by Guinevere and her counsellor Oswald, who reminds her of king Arthur's marriage proposal. She decides to give Arthur a yes because she admires him.

On the way to Camelot the party from Leonesse is attacked by Malagant's men. Guinevere has to beat an attacker off her carriage, before she can jump off herself. Three men pursue her through the forest, but Lancelot appears and saves her. He makes advances, but she does not give in. He predicts she will ask him to kiss her before her wedding day.
Guinevere is welcomed to Camelot in great style.

Lancelot runs the gauntlet during the festivities in Camelot. His prize is a kiss from the queen-to-be. She does not want to and he solves the awkward situation by saying he does not want the kiss out of fear to loose his heart to such a lovely lady. Arthur explains the ideal of the Round Table to Lancelot: "in serving each other we become free". Lancelot says he does not need anyone.

Arthur tells Guinevere he would protect Leonesse even if she does not want to marry him. But she wants to (Sound), says she loves him and knows just one way of loving: "with body, heart and soul". That is how he likes it: "love as warm as sunlight".

A gathering of the knights of the Round Table, one seat is empty. It used to seat for Malagant, who enters and claims Leonesse. Arthur and Guinevere refuse to give in to his demands. That buys them war.

Malagants men seize Guinevere from Camelot, with the help of a clever construction of a boat, some pulley's, a lot of rope and a couple of horses. Lancelot pursues them. Malagant holds Guinevere captive in a ruin. Lancelot pretends to be Arthur's messenger and saves her for the second time.

In the forest they come closer to each other. He has a flash-back of his childhood trauma: his parents were killed in a church which was burned by robbers. With all this sensitivity in the air he comes closer to seducing her, but when they are about to kiss, Arthur's men arrive.
Arthur is grateful for the rescue and wants to make Lancelot a knight of the Round Table, and so happens even though the knights are protesting. Guinevere can not change Lancelot's mind about this. He stays because of her.

The marriage ceremony is performed. A messenger arrives to bring the news of Malagant taking Leonesse. Arthur leads his army to Leonesse and to victory. Lancelot cries out when he sees the church-gate barricaded and is reminded again of his trauma, but the people of Leonnesse are all right. A little boy asks Lancelot: 'Can I go home now?' Lancelot cries behind a hedge.

Back in Camelot Lancelot tells Guinevere he truly believes in the ideals of the Round Table and that he can serve the cause best by leaving. Now she tries to convince him otherwise. He stays with his decision, but takes her in his arms when she says he owes her a kiss. Arthur enters and witnesses the passionate embrace. Guinevere tries to convince Arthur of her love for him, but has to admit she loves Lancelot in a different way. Arthur says his dream is broken. Lancelot and Guinevere will be judged in public.

Lancelot kneels in front of the king and states the queen is innocence. Suddenly Malagant's men pop up to take over Camelot. Arthur pretends to give in to Malagant's demands, but calls upon the people to defend themselves against the tyranny.

The knights of the Round Table, the people of Camelot and Lancelot defeat the villains. Malagant dies on the throne he desired, killed by Lancelot with Arthur's sword.

Guinevere cries at Arthur's death-bed. Lancelot arrives and Arthur calls him his first knight. Lancelot will inherit Camelot and Arthur asks him to take care of Guinevere. Arthur tells Guinevere he now feels the sunlight, because it shines in her eyes. And then he dies.
Arthur's bier is set afloat in the water and a burning arrow initiates the cremation."




Last update: 15-08-2000

© Iman Keuchenius 1998.