Ten years before Antoine Fuqua underwhelmed audiences with his insipid adaptation of a more-historical ‘King Arthur,’ director Jerry Zucker took a shot at bringing the knights of the round table to the big screen in style with ‘First Knight.’ Zucker understood that the allure of the Arthurian legend has little to do with a noble ruler, but with a flawed king whose desire to build a utopian society is undermined by evil men. Unfortunately, a questionable casting decision, a pretentious script, and a series of directorial miscues left ‘First Knight’ in cinematic limbo.
Zucker relies heavily on the Arthurian tales penned by 12th century French poet Chretien de Troyes to weave a story of love, honor, and betrayal. When a nomadic swordsman named Lancelot (Richard Gere) rescues Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond) from an ambush, he inadvertently stumbles into the world of Arthur (Sean Connery) of Camelot. A loner by nature, Lancelot has little interest in the King’s idealistic enterprise or his dreams of unity and peace -- his sole interest lies in the King’s fiancé, Guinevere. As he becomes friends with the King and join’s Arthur’s inner circle, Lancelot is torn between his forbidden love and the potential consequences of his longing. As Arthur wages a war with a former knight named Malagant (Ben Cross), Lancelot must choose between honor and revenge, love and duty, and morality and desire.
There's a lot to love in Zucker's take on Arthurian legend. Connery, Ormond, and Cross are perfectly cast in their roles as King, lover, and foe -- even when the script is drowning in clichés and overworked dialogue, they hold their heads high and do an amazing job with what they’re given. Connery, in particular, fills Arthur with intense inner-conflict and genuinely anchors the lofty King in very real, human emotions. More importantly, Zucker’s sweeping vision of a war-torn land is equally compelling. His choice of a lesser-known Arthurian villain like Malagant provides a perfect counterpoint to the central theme of betrayal at work between Arthur and Lancelot. The resulting disparity allows the director to thoroughly explore the friendship, love, and pain derived from any relationship. More importantly, Zucker leaves out the sorcery of more fantastical Arthurian legends and focuses on the humanity in the characters. I dig Merlin and Morgan as much as the next Arthur fan, but they’ve been so completely explored in other films that I appreciated Zucker’s attempts at originality.
Of course, then we come to Richard Gere. Like Kevin Costner in ‘Prince of Thieves,’ Gere’s distinctly American swagger sucks the intrigue right out of this otherwise European story. He plays his part well, but I never forgot that I was watching a performance -- I doubt anyone will argue that the unconvincing swordplay and two-note delivery in ‘First Knight’ is his finest work. He portrays Lancelot as a scoundrel, yet never justifies his feelings towards the king’s bride to be. He comes across as a braggart and a lech. By the time he completes his character arc and has his moments of third act revelation, he had lost my interest and my sympathy. Instead of making Lancelot a tattered soul looking for his place in the world, Gere turns Arthur’s most beloved knight into a spoiled parasite with no business being the hero of the film.
It doesn’t end there. Writer William Nicholson seems distracted by the nature of the original French poems -- the dialogue in ‘First Knight’ is so dense and lyrical at times, that it becomes unbelievable and unrealistic. I enjoyed Arthur’s philosophical chats with Lancelot, but his doublespeak and circular logic was occasionally problematic. At the same time, Nicholson’s Arthur also displays startling foresight about freedom that simply would not have been relevant in the era the film takes place. Arthur’s visions of democracy and nationalism are a clear product of 20th century thinking. I actually found myself wondering if the king would started jabbering about voting reform and campaign financing.
In the end, ‘First Knight’ offers a solid old-Hollywood actioner packed with swordfights, knights, and clashing armies. It doesn’t hit every note as perfectly as I had hoped, but I could think of far worse ways to spend two hours. Tune out Gere, Arthur’s crystal ball predictions, and the philosophical dead-ends that litter the dialogue and you’ll be fine. Ultimately, if you dig flicks like ‘Prince of Thieves,’ you’ll probably find a soft spot in your heart for ‘First Knight.’
’First Knight’ arrives on Blu-ray with a respectable 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that meets my expectations, but falls short of the high quality I’ve seen with better catalog titles on the market. This release emerges from mediocrity early on when Guinevere first arrives at Camelot -- even at night, colors are bold and stable, fleshtones are natural, and blacks are nice and deep. Delineation is also particularly impressive, injecting the picture with a decent amount of depth (for a catalog title) while showcasing background elements that were formerly obscured by the darkness on the standard DVD edition. Exterior shots in general look fantastic and an increased level of detail is the main draw to this disc. Countryside brush, trees, and stones are crisp and well rendered, while fabric texture and the fine hair on Connery’s beard stand out. Aside from the occasionally spiking grain field, the video doesn’t suffer from noise, artifacting, or edge enhancement as the standard DVD does.
Even so, after watching ‘First Knight’ in its entirety, I can’t get the word “flat” out of my head. The image holds up well despite its age, but something is a little off when it comes to the reliability and three-dimensionality of the transfer. The picture doesn’t always pop, I didn’t experience high-def’s famed picture-window effect, and I rarely felt as if I could reach out and touch anything on screen. Worse still, contrast fluctuates mid-scene and occasionally gives way to a slight fluctuation in the ambient light. All in all, the source of these issues is difficult to classify, but the overall experience feels mildly dated and uninspiring. While fans should be pleased with Sony’s efforts, I have the nagging suspicion the film could look better.
Like the video presentation, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track featured on ‘First Knight’ sounds quite good, but ultimately feels a bit underwhelming in light of other standout catalog titles. First and foremost, dynamics are noteworthy, with plenty of LFE support and stable high-end effects – swords clang and resonate as they should, legions of horses sound as powerful as one would expect, and the shouts of dying soldiers are appropriately prioritized in the soundscape. The rear surrounds aren’t exactly aggressive, but there are plenty of elements that combine to create a convincing and immersive soundfield. In fact, the stage is littered with clean effects, impressive ambience, and acoustics that allow ‘First Knight’ to clearly outperform its standard DVD counterpart.
Unfortunately, there are a handful of issues that limit the impact of the mix. Dialogue is occasionally lost or muffled, prioritization is spotty, and the rousing score tends to overpower other elements in the soundfield. Don’t get me wrong, the music sounds great on a technical level, but I don’t recall it being presented as such a central, bombastic component of the film. Finally, for all of the battle scenes and sword fights (particularly in the third act), the track’s low-end extension feels dated by the staginess of its soundscape and a series of overwrought, mid-90s design aesthetics. Even so, the Blu-ray edition of ‘First Knight’ is definitely the disc to beat and the one that fans of the film should have on their shelf.
The Blu-ray edition of ’First Knight’ features all of the supplemental material that appears on the new Special Edition DVD. While there’s a hefty chunk of content to be had, fans may be disappointed to find that many of the features are complete letdowns. Still, a surprisingly solid filmmakers’ commentary and a few decent featurettes keep this disc’s head above water.
Hollywood has yet to deliver the perfect Arthurian film. ‘First Knight’ has some good performances and solid story design, but it stumbles too often to win my affections. This new Blu-ray edition easily outclasses standard DVDs that have come before it, but it never quite seals the deal. The video transfer is impressive but flat, the TrueHD audio is powerful but problematic, and the supplemental package is generous but inconsistent. ‘First Knight’ offers enough of an upgrade to leave fans of the film with an easy decision, but newcomers should definitely rent this disc before considering a purchase.