The first thing to love or hate about "First Knight" is its audacity. In retelling the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, it takes the sacred canon of Arthurian legend and says cheekily, "No thank you." In this Camelot, they make up a lot and they forget a lot.
Among the forgotten: England, Mordred, the Lady in the Lake, Merlin (Merlin!), Lancelot's knighthood, the Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, and any awareness that the story owes an allegiance to tradition. Instead, with the blase insouciance that Hollywood used to treat the classics (famous Hollywood credit line: "A Midsummer's Night Dream," by William Shakespeare; additional dialogue by Sam Katz), the film simply and airily sets about to reinvent its own identity. It's all additional dialogue, although by William Nicholson, not Sam Katz.
So we get a Camelot that appears to be set in the fifth neighborhood of Disney World, somewhat north of Pirates of the Caribbean, and a story that goes wiggly wherever it wants. Lancelot, for example, is less a knight errant than a con man and mercenary, supporting himself with swordsmanship contests. Guinevere is basically a political creature, who marries Arthur because it ensures Camelot's protection for her own land, a mythical place called "Leonesse," possibly founded by either Leon Trotsky or Leon Uris. As for Arthur, he's basically Sean Connery and it helps matters no end that he's played by Sean Connery.
So if you're a devotee of "The Sword in the Stone" or "The Once and Future King," or "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" or "King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table" or "Excalibur," you'll probably be steamed -- for about two minutes.
The truth soon dawns that, taken on its own, "First Knight" is sublime summer entertainment, from the passion and beauty and grace of its stars to the thrust of its drama to the awe of its spectacle.
Richard Gere is probably the only American actor who could deliver a Lancelot that isn't ludicrous (remember poor Kevin Costner as Robin Hood?). Though his work is often knotted with narcissistic angst, in "First Knight" he puts the face thing aside, and delivers a clean, forceful performance that's equal parts romance and nihilism. No "First Knight" jitters here.
As for Guinevere, Julia Ormond has the same thankless role as objet d'amour between strong-willed men that she had in "Legends of the Fall." Here, as there, she's extremely impressive with not much of a part. Her great physical attribute is the kindness that co-exists in that flawless face with her beauty. She has friendly eyes. Far from haughty, she gives goodness a good name, and when she yields to hormonal attraction, one feels her pain at betraying Arthur.
Arthur is played by Sean Connery; that's all you need to know.
The story is streamlined to the point of unrecognizability. Lancelot meets Guinevere first, when he saves her from thugs sent by new villain Malagant (Ben Cross, with cheekbones like missile cones and a glare that could melt steel). So she's already half in love with Lancelot when she finally meets the kind, the just, the saintly Arthur, who is, after all, Sean Connery.
This Camelot, however pictorially gorgeous, does have an odd flavor to it. It's Camelot by Popeil; that is to say, a Camelot full of gizmos and odd machines. To impress Guinevere and Arthur, for example, Lancelot doesn't joust, he runs a mechanical gantlet, ducking robot arms and swords. Malagant's legions boast pistol crossbows. A castle kidnapping involves a speed boat run off a block-and-tackle rig. How does Lancelot get across the lake in pursuit? Basically, he water-skis! Basically, the production was designed by a Connecticut Yankee.
Director Zucker comes out of the hard comedy world: He was one-third (with Brother David and Jim Abrahams) of the ZAZ team that redefined screen comedy with the "Naked Gun" and "Airplane" movies. But since then he's become something of a specialist in yearning romance, as in his world hit "Ghost." This is another one about star-crossed lovers who can't quite get on the same page; you'll be surprised at how un-carnal the attraction between them, how ethereal and oddly noble.
But the film also has some terrific battle scenes, including a moonlit combat full of glinting knights' armor on the field before Leonesse. Gere, whose journey from wastrel to knight forms the emotional arc of the story, appears to have great action skills, something he's never shown before except in the relatively unseen "No Mercy." (He is reported to have turned down "Die Hard.")
It's a terrific summer movie.
Starring Sean Connery, Richard Gere and Julia Ormond
Directed by Jerry Zucker
Released by Columbia
Rated PG-13 (violence, sexual situations)