It's almost come down to this: How do you prefer your Arthurian legend?
You'd think it would be simple to craft a film about one of the most romantic figures in Western folklore, but the direction that King Arthur goes can vary radically according to the source that filmmakers use, and the tone that they take.
Old-style Hollywood romanticized Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, giving us star vehicles and plenty of medieval pageantry. Robert Taylor played Lancelot to Ava Gardner's Guinevere in "Knights of the Round Table" (1953). But John Boorman took the same text some 30 years later and turned it gritty with his "Excalibur," tossing in scraps of the darkly supernatural and sexually deviant. And, of course, we all know what the Monty Python crew did to the King Arthur legend in 1975, playing it for even more laughs than the more romantic "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" that had time-traveling Bing Crosby vexing poor King Arthur and Merlin and the rest of the gang and giving us a few chuckles in the process.
In 2004, Antoine Fuqua abandoned Malory's compilation of Arthurian legends in favor of the first manuscripts that described a real Arthur as a leader of the Britons who lived anywhere between the 5th and 7th centuries. That "King Arthur" felt more like "Braveheart," with a more cutthroat action than chivalry. He was no more recognizable as Arthur than I am. And of course for singing versions of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere and more pageantry, turn to Joshua Logan's "Camelot."
The point is, all of these films had a vision in mind, and of course they speak to different audiences-as does this 1995 film by Jerry Zucker ("Ghost"). While you'd expect something light from a third of the trio that gave us "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun," Zucker instead goes new-style Hollywood. In "First Knight" there's more glitz and glimmer than a shield in sunlight, with the focus on romance and adventure, Hollywood style. This Guinevere (Julia Ormond) grabs hands with Lancelot (a long-haired Richard Gere) and jumps out of a cave that's pouring a waterfall into a pool that looks to be more than a hundred feet below, in a scene reminiscent of "Six Days and Six Nights" and any number of adventure films. This Guinevere grabs an attacker in her runaway coach as it careens through the forest, and like Princess Leia throws him off right in front of a rapidly passing tree. This version of Camelot is big as a Disney theme park and so grand-looking because Zucker confesses, "I always wanted Camelot to look like a place you'd want to go on vacation." By contrast, where, after leaving the Round Table as Scar left the kingdom in "The Lion King," the bad knight, Prince Malagant (a sneering Ben Cross), sets up shop in a broken down castle that looks a little post-nuke.
In other words, "First Knight" is all Hollywood, and for some people that will make it an entertaining and enjoyable film. But because it's based on five romances by a 12th-century French poet named Chrétien de Troyes and not the more well-known text by Malory, there's no Merlin, no Mordred, no Morgan Le Fay, no Excalibur, and no Holy Grail.
In this version, Guinevere is sent from a neighboring principality of Leonesse to marry Arthur at her father's request. And unlike other Arthurian legends, this film has the two already familiar with each other. Arthur (Sean Connery) remembers Guinevere when she was a little girl. And now he's going to marry her. O-kay.
In this version, Lancelot isn't all that royal. He's more like a wandering brigand who wagers with peasants who are challenged to fight him with swords. Chivalry? Never heard of it. Is that a brand of scotch?
In this version, Lancelot is older than Guinevere, instead of vice versa, and Arthur is really old. Later, on the commentary track, a medievalist explains that the legend had Guinevere 20 years older than Lance, with Arthur older still, but not by all that much.
And in this version, which smacks a bit of "The Princess Bride" without the frame narration, the whole focus is on a damsel who's kidnapped and a roguish good guy's attempts to save her. Make that a single roguish good guy, because in this "Indiana Jones"-style actioner, Lancelot does it all by himself. Yep, it's unbelievable, but so is every glitzy Hollywood script of this sort. "First Knight" just happens to be set in medieval Britain.
So, is that to say "First Knight" isn't entertaining? Not remotely, to borrow an oft-quoted phrase from "Princess Bride." As I said, it all depends on how you prefer your Arthurian legend. "First Knight" actually accomplishes what it sets out to do. It doesn't pretend to be "real," and only wants to give a romantic roller-coaster ride in the tradition of modern tinseltown. It's action-packed (careful of smaller children with battle scenes that routinely show spears going into heads and such), it's suspenseful, it has good guys and bad guys and beautiful people, and that's the essence of the Hollywood treatment. So what if they didn't have mechanical gauntlets of the kind of Rube Goldberg complexity that we see here. When Launcelot attempts it, what's not to like? Connery seems a bit uncomfortable at times playing a character that's so much different for him--I can't recall the last time anybody would have wanted to cheat on him in a film--but Gere and Ormond actually have a pretty decent chemistry going. It gets a little hokey at times, and unbelievably so, but "First Knight" has gotten a worse rap than it deserves.
The 1080p picture looks very good, transferred to a 50-gig dual-layered disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology and presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There's a very slight graininess, but otherwise the palette--which is heavy on blues and greens and misty grays in the nature scenes--looks rich despite low-light conditions. Black levels are strong, and so there's plenty of detail; though some of the cave sequences have a little edge distortion, it's not something you'd notice unless you're looking for it.
I know PCM takes up more space, but I wish Sony hadn't apparently abandoned it for Dolby TrueHD, which has always struck me as less dynamic. That said, the sound is still pretty good, with a nice balance between the dialogue, music, and effects. The bass is strong without being overpowering, and quiet sounds are tracked pretty convincingly. The TrueHD is also available in French and Portuguese, with additional options in Spanish and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1 and Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. Subtitles are in French, English, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, and English SDH--but as usual, bonus features have a much more limited range of options.
Three deleted scenes take up less than 10 minutes, and aren't terribly revealing, and to be honest I didn't find the other short features all that compelling. "The Quest for Camelot" has the worst sound of any bonus feature I've watched. I sounds like an old monaural record, or as if Zucker was talking to us via cell phone from his cinder-block basement. It's a clip-heavy feature, too, with actors interviewed on the set and uttering basically "here's what the movie is about" promo stuff. "The Creation of a Kingdom" focuses on production design, and is a little more interesting, especially given the decision to go Hollywood with this one. "Knights in Training" offers John Clements, director of the Association of the Renaissance Martial Arts, who talks about the actuality of historical medieval combat and the fact that Hollywood always gets it wrong. "Personally," he told DVD Town, "I found this film's combat sequences quite poor, even by the low standards of most movies."
The other bonus features are two commentary tracks, one featuring director Zucker and producer Hunt Lowry offering fairly standard remarks, and the other by a scholar who isn't credited on the cover notes or even on the menu, but out to be. I didn't catch the name of this Canadian academic as he introduced himself, but his commentary was honest and peppered with wry jokes. Example? As someone picks up the equivalent of a Saturday night special, he quips, "That's a very light crossbow." Meaning, of course, that they didn't have crossbows as small as a Derringer. He points out what's the result of all that meticulous research and what was added to jazz things up. Breaches of etiquette in courtly love, comments on the real text that this was based on, and areas where the film deviates sharply from "truth" are all pointed out with the same wry tone. It's an engaging commentary, and you have to give credit to Zucker for going along with a track like this that takes him to task a number of times.
Some sequences are utterly fantastic in a positive way, while others are fantastic in the "I can't buy this" way. But as with any action film or romance, if you don't think about it too much, "First Knight" will provide an engaging evening of escapism--especially if you enjoy glossy Hollywood treatments. And this version of the Arthurian legend is all Hollywood.