Just what we think we don’t need — another schlep back to Camelot. This time it’s Sean Connery as Arthur, the king who finds the honor of his Round Table sullied when he catches Queen Guinevere (Julia Ormond) with first knight Lancelot (Richard Gere). Everyone’s had a go at the story: Malory, Tennyson, T.H. White, even Monty Python. In the ’60s musical Camelot, Richard Burton sang movingly about “one brief shining moment” that evoked lost kingdoms from Arthur’s to JFK’s. Though director Jerry Zucker is covering old ground in First Knight, the story of how a love betrayed threatens the principles of the Round Table still takes hold. Whenever Zucker stops piling on battle scenes as if he were directing Braveheart, his film casts a romantic spell.
Connery is every inch the noble king to attract Guinevere. And Ormond (Legends of the Fall), whose manner is perhaps a shade too frosty for genuine charm, has the youth, looks and defiant wit to make him a match. Though Gere is persuasively ardent and athletic, he plays Lancelot not as the virtuous French knight of legend (don’t expect an accent from this Lancelot du Lac) but as a lusty soldier of fortune. So what if he’s more Lance the surfer stud? Connery, the great Scot, talks the same way to his queen as he did to Moneypenny. It’s the heat in the erotic triangle that counts.
Aside from a stolen kiss or two, Zucker keeps Guinevere and Lancelot chaste, too worried about ideals to commit adultery. Nobody gets kinky at the pottery wheel the way Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze did in Zucker’s Ghost. The reticence pays off near the end when screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands) provides the characters with a provocative and literate debate about the nature of love. “Your heart chooses him,” says the jealous Arthur. “But my will chooses you,” Guinevere parries, “and that is the best of me.” In those moments, when Zucker stays alert to the clash of mind and heart instead of the clank of sword and armor, First Knight finally does catch the fleeting wisp of glory that was known as Camelot.