Never give a Zucker an even break. There's a Zucker born every minute. This is the sort of verdict that will occur to viewers of Jerry Zucker's dire new film First Knight. After Ghost, Zucker seems to think he has a natural affinity with romantic drama. Not on the basis of First Knight, he doesn't.
The film is an elaborate version of the legend of King Arthur, with lots of distracting business added and the core taken out. Camelot in First Knight is an odd mixture of theme park and benign fascist state. Happy happy townspeople greet Arthur's new bride with a mighty outpouring of confetti from the battlements - it's a Dark Ages ticker tape parade. The king's bodyguards execute precision manoeuvres in strict lines carrying torches, as if they were a motorcycle display team who had mislaid their machines. Some architectural details of Camelot, notably towers topped with blue cones, make it seem as it if this magic kingdom is ruled not by a round table of knights but by a little mouse with round ears - except that it is Disneyland filmed by Leni Riefenstahl.
A recurring shot is of the Round Table from above, with a sort of low brazier burning in its centre. When the round table is in session, the knights lay down their swords in front of them with ludicrous symmetry, as if they would lose points for sloppy sword-placement. The Round Table has even been designed to look its best with everyone's sword perfectly aligned. It's a designer Round Table.
Nevertheless, there's a lot missing from this Camelot; no Merlin, no Excalibur (Arthur's sword is special, but has no name), no Lady of the Lake, no Mordred, no Morgan Le Fay. Crucially, there is no sex. Lancelot (Richard Gere) meets Guinevere (Julia Ormond) when she's on her way to marry Arthur (Sean Connery). On the two occasions when they seem to be giving in to attraction, and carnal conversation is imminent, they are conveniently interrupted. Nor, apparently, is Guinevere's marriage to Arthur ever consummated.
It takes a certain amount of madness to turn a legend of adultery into a story about virginity tempted. The screenplay is by William "Shadowlands" Nicholson, who must surely know better. Let's hope that the Dark Ages whitewash was forced on him, to please those political forces who see Hollywood as a polluter of morals.
With Arthur turned from a betrayed husband into a disappointed bridegroom, no wonder Nicholson can't come up with much in the way of stirring dialogue for Connery. "Forgive me," breathes Guinevere, and Arthur says, "What's to forgive?" He goes on: "I dreamed a dream of you. It was a sweet dream." The Camelot legend isn't merely sweetened by these changes - there's even room now for a happy ending - it is denatured. A story about an idealistic society destroyed from within becomes a story about one threatened from outside, by the outcast knight Malagant. Malagant, who lives in a sort of Batcave in a slate-mine, complete with an oubliette hundreds of feet deep, is played by Ben Cross with an exaggerated villainy vainly awaiting its final push into high camp.
The actors just about manage not to sink without trace. Lancelot may possibly have been as smug as Richard Gere portrays him, giving equally patronising nods and shakes of the head when Guinevere successfully kills someone or denies her passion for him. Julia Ormond shows no special qualities, and some of her early scenes are awkward, but she bears no particular responsibility for the awfulness of the film.This Guinevere is supposed to be feisty and spunky and so on, but she still seems to need an awful lot of rescuing.
Sean Connery is the performer most thrown away by the director. He too starts uncertainly. His voice sounding like a Connery-impressionist's rather than the real thing. But by the time of Arthur's romantic disappointment he is getting a fair amount of mileage out of the role. Seeing Lancelot and Guinevere in a kiss, he stumbles and almost falls. It is at this point that Jerry Zucker chooses to do something clever, instead of trusting the great screen actor he has hired, and superimposes on Arthur's eye the burning brazier that sits in the middle of the round table.
Having created all sorts of gaps in the legend, Zucker fills them with increasingly preposterous action sequences. He seems not to have noticed that similar sequences in the Indiana Jones films contained a strong element of self parody. So Camelot boasts a machine called the Gauntlet, an immense assembly of cogs, swinging balls, sandbags and axes on pendulums, which no one has ever been able to get through. Just to underline the resemblance to American Gladiators, contestants climb into padded suits before they set off. The only jarring note is the absence of big hair and lycra, the crowd singing along to "Another One Bites the Dust".
There's something monotonous about ancient battle, don't you think? Just biff and clang. Zucker throws in some absurd weaponry to start with, notably some natty bows that you can fire one-handed - fully as plausible in period as Stealth Bombers. For extra surprise value in ambushes, Malagant men's sometimes disguise themselves as sheep.
In the dizziest sequence of all, Guinevere is kidnapped from Camelot. A boat arrives with a man claiming to bring news from her home kingdom of Leonesse. Guinevere hurries to greet him. As she does, Malagant's men bob up from the lake, where they have perhaps been masquerading as frogs, and hustle her on to the boat. The boat is winched back across the lake at high speed, positively aquaplaning by an arrangement of ropes and pulleys.
It's easy to sympathise with the knight who was supposed to be guarding Guinevere when Arthur demands explanations. What is the reason for this lapse of security? How was this allowed to happen? He can hardly say that Malagant has invented the hydrofoil.
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