Reviewed by: C. I. Bishop
Starring: Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Julia Ormond, Ben Cross, Liam Cunningham | Director: Jerry Zucker | Producers: Hunt Lowry, Jerry Zucker, Janet Zucker, Kathryn J. McDermott, Gil Netter, Eric Rattray | Screenwriter: William Nicholson, from a story by William Nicholson, Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton | Released By: Columbia Tristar
It is a time of tribulation and warfare in England, when one must live by the sword or die by it. Prince Malagant, Arthur’s First Knight, has betrayed him and left to follow his own destiny of power and greed. His lands border the estate of Leanesse, governed by the beautiful and compassionate Lady Guinevere… but his true quarry is Camelot. Burning, pillaging, murdering at will, Malagant inflicts terror upon the peasantry who turn to their lady for help. Torn between her freedom and a love for her people, she decides that the best manner in which to protect her tenants is an alliance between Leanesse and Camelot, whose legendary King Arthur would die to protect the innocent.
While on her journey to the famed city of the most powerful man on Earth, Guinevere’s caravan is attacked by Malagant’s men and her carriage taken prisoner. In a daring escape, Guinevere flees into the wood and is rescued by the wandering swordsman Lancelot. A magnificent and fearless fighter but also a notorious womanizer, he attempts to seduce her but she refuses his advances and goes into the welcoming arms of King Arthur, expecting never to see Lancelot again.
However, an ill wind blows no good and Lancelot arrives in Camelot the day of her public engagement. Braving the gauntlet to win a kiss from the would-be-queen, Lancelot is praised by Arthur for his bravery (and stupidity) and eventually invited to join the Knights of the Round Table in Malagant’s place. Their arch-enemy, in the meantime, is determined to have Leanesse and will stop at nothing to gain it. And when a challenge on the castle itself leaves Guinevere in enemy hands, Arthur may give up everything to purchase her freedom.
I stayed away from this film when it premiered because a film about the fated love affair that sent Camelot into ruin was bound to be raunchy and tied with strings of adultery. When I did hesitantly give the film a chance, I was immediately impressed with the restraint showed by the producers and scriptwriters. The love affair was merely a sideline to a wonderful story of bravery, honor, and self-sacrifice. And what’s more, Guinevere was faithful to Arthur save in one instance upon Lancelot’s departure, when she gave him a farewell kiss. King Arthur himself was a very pronounced and blatant Christian, asking for God’s mercy and wisdom in dealing with Malagant, his knights, and even Guinevere. “I take the good with the bad,” he says to Lancelot early on. “I can’t love people in slices.” Yet he doesn’t hesitate to punish sin where it’s due. Christianity is cast in a respectable light; there is no Merlin, magic, or witchcraft here.
Not a single profanity is uttered in the entire two hours. There is not a hint of nudity or sexuality other than some mild innuendo. Lancelot befuddles Guinevere’s captor by insinuating that he was only after the woman (a vague suggestion of rape). Malagant terrifies Guinevere by tearing off her dress, but she is still suitably (and modestly) covered with a thick petticoat and chemise. The only caution in the film’s rating is the violence. Sometimes explicit, often brutal, the warfare element of the story is First Knight’s only flaw. Hand-to-hand combat, impaling by both arrows and swords, the burning of a church and barn and intense thematic elements make this unsuitable for impressionable children.
Gorgeous scenery, compelling dialogue, magnificent costumes and the sheer magnitude of the Camelot that lives on in myth draws together a film that, despite its very few flaws, will touch your heart. The most moral and compelling Camelot story of all time, “First Knight” is a film that teaches good ideals and the value of honor without the usual Hollywood morals. An afternoon well-spent for lovers of the Arthurian legend.