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First Knight an unsatisfying rewrite of Camelot story

First Knight

Directed by Jerry Zucker.

Written by William Nicholson; based on a story by Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, and William Nicholson.

Starring Richard Gere, Sean Connery, Julia Ormond, and Ben Cross.

Loews Cheri

By Scott Deskin
Chairman

Established Hollywood directors aren't content to stick around in the cinematic present: "Outsiders" like Quentin Tarantino and hundreds of other independent filmmakers have more effectively laid claim to that turf. With the complexities of modern life swirling around us, some of the old crowd sense the need for a little escapism and a lot of romanticism, to reach back to a simpler, more idyllic age. Perhaps that explains the recent surge of films like Rob Roy, Braveheart, and now, First Knight.

This latest film takes the King Arthur myth and injects some modern-day social parallels, but unfortunately leaves out elements that made the original Camelot myth so magical - namely, the magic itself. Merlin and Excalibur have vanished completely, replaced by a story so down-to-earth it could be set in the Old West. In First Knight, Richard Gere plays the title character, Lancelot, a swordsman who wanders the medieval English countryside in search of adventure and someone with a blade worthy of his own. One day in the forest, he trails the Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond) saves her from a gang of ruthless kidnappers, and immediately falls in love with her. But Guinevere has already betrothed herself to King Arthur (Sean Connery) and vowed to rule with him as the Queen of Camelot, and she brushes off Lancelot's lustful advances.

They go their separate ways, but Lancelot soon finds himself drawn to Camelot. As he runs a gauntlet designed for a festival in the kingdom's main courtyard, he impresses Arthur to the point where the king offers him a seat at the legendary Round Table. However, in this story, Lancelot's motivations for staying have less to do with serving the chivalric ideals of Camelot than fulfilling his own romantic desire, much to this dismay - and frustration - of Guinevere. A more serious threat to the kingdom comes in the form of Malagant (Ben Cross), one of Arthur's former knights who has turned to the dark side. He knows Arthur's weak spot - Guinevere - and succeeds in a second kidnapping attempt; he ransoms her for outrageous territorial demands, threatening Camelot itself. At this point, Lancelot sets out to rescue Guinevere, but his loyalty is put to the test later in the film: In whose name is he serving - his own or that of the kingdom?

First Knight has a lot going for it. Fresh-faced Julia Ormond gives a subtle performance as Guinevere, and her various expressions of shock at Lancelot's determination to win her heart never seem forced. Richard Gere doesn't give Lancelot a lot of humility, but his cockiness and self-assurance at the beginning of the film changes to a semblance of courage and loyalty when Arthur calls Lancelot's moral character into question. Also, though age 45, Gere handles a sword pretty well in the fighting scenes.

But as King Arthur, Sean Connery is wasted in another role. He certainly looks and sounds good as a king, but his part in the story is relegated to that of a virtual nonentity. The passion between Arthur and Guinevere in this story is never developed, and Arthur is set up to look like a lame duck from the start in the midst of his young militia. Also, the set design is a bit too impeccable (in the case of Arthur's knights and the royal, multi-colored banners) and the battle scenes are a letdown after the masterful ones in Braveheart.

It's unlikely that First Knight will be remembered as a definitive rewrite of the story of Camelot, much less an imaginative one. Many of the scenes are missing the pastoral beauty or even the wit of the original myth: Director Jerry Zucker seemed to transpose his film Ghost in a medieval setting, with a dash of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves thrown in for good measure. When Arthur and his dream of Camelot die at the end of the film, all you're left with is the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere - but it's not enough to leave you satisfied.