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Not the best cinematic vision of Camelot, but far from the worst
on 18 December 2010
The epic genre was still to all intents dead in 1995, and First Knight didn't do anything to revive it despite what should have been perfect casting with Sean Connery as an ageing King Arthur losing his queen to his new best friend in fable's most enduring romantic triangle. It's not a bad film at all - the action scenes are well handled, the romance better than expected and Jerry Goldsmith provides a fine score - but it's not particularly special, and in taking away the magical elements of the tale (no Merlin here) it's always in danger of veering to the ordinary. It's certainly no Robin and Marion, nor does Connery prove much of a Lion in a Winter with one of his weaker and less committed performances in what's little more than a prominent supporting role despite his top-billing (it was not a particularly happy shoot, and that does show at times). The real hero of the film is Richard Gere's Lancelot, travelling from village to village earning his crust with sword tricks, the actor managing to overcome what seems like his miscasting surprisingly well and showing real flair in the swordplay and action scenes as he initially protects and, naturally, falls in love with Julia Ormond's Guinevere, who seems to respond to almost every dramatic crisis with a slightly nervous smile.
Unlikely director Jerry Zucker (he of Ghost and, er, Airplane!) handles the romance and the action well enough, but he's not exactly got an epic vision, playing much of the picture in medium shot - long shots really aren't his thing unless they're establishing shots - which, allied with the decision to shoot in 1.85:1 rather than 2.35:1, makes for a less than spectacular look to much of the film. The early CGi is variable: Camelot looks good enough but the big night-time battle's computer generated extras draw attention to themselves by their lack of detail even in near total darkness. The look of the film doesn't help, legendary production designer John Box leaving the picture when his sets proved too expensive for the film's budget, and the knights' uniforms (no shining armour here) aren't exactly inspired either, looking like cast-offs from a Star Trek spinoff or a 70s Bond villain's private army.
Yet for all the problems, the picture works fine as entertainment, William Nicholson's screenplay giving the cast some better dialogue to deliver than you might expect and throwing in the odd moment of ingenuity in a couple of the early action sequences. And for all the complaints of departing too much from the myth, it actually goes back to the very first account of Lancelot and Guinevere's love affair, Chretien de Troyes' 12th Century The Knight of the Cart, even keeping the original villain Meleagant (here renamed Malegant and played by a typically bad-tempered Ben Cross) rather than going for the better known Mordred or Morgana le Fay. Not that this is exactly Lancelot du Lac or even Excalibur in terms of ambition - it's a populist popcorn picture, nothing more. As such, it may not be the best vision of Camelot out there, but it's certainly a cut above the likes of Knights of the Round Table.
After a bare-bones DVD release, Sony's BluRay release offers a mild upgrade in picture quality and a few extras that are also available on the remastered Region 1 NTSC DVD special edition - audio commentary by Zucker and producer Hunt Lowry, a second commentary by historian Corey Rushto, four redundant deleted scenes in less than pristine condition and a trio of featurettes.