A legend gets a new look In 'First Knight,' 'Arthur' myth gets romantic


From "Knights of the Round Table" to "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," from "Camelot" to "Excalibur," the legend of King Arthur has always intrigued filmmakers.

Whether reverent, pompously mock-reverent, outright mocking or musically rendered, the medieval tale of Arthur and his knights Camelot has always made for a good yarn. But ask the principals of "First Knight" -- the latest, wildly romantic, incarnation of Arthurian legend -- to describe their film's inspirations, and the viewpoints become widely skewed.

Sean Connery, who stars as King Arthur, suggests: "Maybe there was something to do with the idea of Camelot, which especially now is interesting and almost desirable. When you look around ** and you see Bosnia and so on, everything seems to be a mess everywhere. Everybody's complaining about every society. There's never been a time in my life where everybody's so [angry] with their government, whether it's left, right or center. Everyone seems to be so disenchanted. So the idea that there would have been a Camelot seems terrific."

For an opposing view, let's turn to Richard Gere, who plays Sir Lancelot: " 'Excalibur' [John Boorman's 1981 film] was a very bold approach in terms of storytelling, and I think that this film was a reaction to that in many ways. That has a lot of external magic to it, and this film decided to internalize that magic and put it inside the characters and reveal it in the relationships between them, which makes it more romantic and less intellectual."

Then there's director Jerry Zucker ("Ghost," the "Airplane" movies), who says he was never a fan of Arthurian movies.

He says: "This is a WASPy movie, isn't it? I love it! . . . We wanted to tell people right away that this is a different telling of the legend, to attack it as though the legend had never been told before. As opposed to having [Lancelot] come in with ideals and fall from them, better thematically to have someone come in and learn the morals . . . I never sought to contemporize it."

At any rate, the lushly romanticized "First Knight" is a far cry from the gritty "Morte d'Arthur" of your college-freshman English-lit classes. Here, Lancelot is hardly the "squeaky-clean Boy Scout" (as Mr. Gere puts it) of lore, but a ne'er-do-well nihilist who is handy with a sword and has a propensity for rescuing Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond) from all manner of dastardly fates.

This, of course, makes him far more seductive than the earnestly New-Agey Arthur, whose staid good works are hardly sexy. Guinevere, who is to wed Arthur, must struggle with her sense of morality. More physical struggles are provided by the villainous Malagant (Ben Cross), who supplies the swordplay between the romantic entanglements.

Mr. Connery says: "I like the concept that [screenwriter William] Nicholson had, in simplifying the foundation of the romantic triangle, in bringing in someone from the outside [here, Lancelot] who's got nothing to lose and is sort of abused by [the system]. That clarifies what . . . is supposed to be."

Mr. Gere, who, of course, had recently looked on as his marriage with supermodel Cindy Crawford disintegrated, conceded that playing the ultracool Lancelot became even more of a challenge.

"This was not a great year for me, so I'm kind of amazed that I came off as lighthearted and roguish as I do in the movie," he says.

Nonetheless, the character's aggressiveness helped him cope with his personal life, Mr. Gere says. "Work always helps, sure," he says. "It's always better to go into work, to maintain some sense of normalcy. This was particularly good for me, just riding horses, blowing off energy."

Mr. Connery has blown off energy playing near-mythical characters in such films as "Robin and Marian," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "The Man Who Would Be King," "The Wind and the Lion," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Great Train Robbery" and "The Sword of the Valiant." He has also embodied two pop-culture icons -- Indiana Jones' father and, of course, James Bond.

Mr. Connery's presence here lends King Arthur a gravity and resonance few actors could bring, Mr. Zucker concedes.

"Bill [Nicholson] wrote in a lot of lines and moments to show Arthur's authority," he says, "but as soon as Sean stepped before the camera, that was all there. We didn't need any of that. He has that kind of commanding presence and power, and you understand why people follow him."

For his part, Mr. Connery says there are only two larger-than-life characters from history he wishes he could have portrayed. Unfortunately, movies have already been made of both of them.

"I know the [William] Wallace story, he's the most important hero in Scottish history," says Mr. Connery, who says he has not seen "Braveheart," Mel Gibson's throat-gashing take on the Wallace legend. "Many years ago, I was involved with a possibility of doing it in the theater. Another story I developed was Sir Richard Burton, but it just got bigger and bigger and more complicated and less possible to make."

The exploits of Burton, the famed English adventurer, was eventually told in the 1990 film "Mountains of the Moon." "There was wonderful stuff in it, but it missed what Burton was about," Mr. Connery says, a tad wistfully.

Meanwhile, when "First Knight" opens, it's a good bet that Richard Gere won't be in line for a ticket. He has severely curtailed his movie-going activities, he says.

"It's my business, too, but there are other things in life," he explains. "I like movies, too, but it's not like 'I've got to see something this weekend!' I'd rather have dinner with friends and talk."

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