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The Arthurian legends have an incredible power to them. Not only have they endured, but they have grown, become richer and deeper and more complex over the centuries since the real Arthur who, as far as historians can tell, probably fought the Saxon invaders in fifth-century Britain. There is no “original story,” no single authentic version of the deeds of King Arthur and his knights... instead, there are many legends that are frequently contradictory. It’s a fascinating subject.

First Knight
The movie is evidently set in the imaginary territory of the French Arthurian tales, which is appropriate, as the film features Lancelot, who was an invention of the twelfth-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes. First Knight is not faithful to any particular tales from the Arthurian legends, but it is faithful to the larger story; it uses many of the same elements that appear again and again in various versions of the legend: Guinevere being kidnapped and rescued by Lancelot; Malagant (i.e. Mordred), the trusted knight who turns against Arthur; the fall of Camelot.

In First Knight, the Arthurian cycle is stripped to a few key elements, in this case the relationship among Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. This is a wise choice, since there is a vast amount of potential material out there, which could easily overwhelm the movie (as, for instance, the inclusion of the Grail quest badly destabilizes another Arthurian film, Excalibur). By keeping the focus tight, director Jerry Zucker is able to develop the relationships among the characters believably.

Sean Connery makes an excellent King Arthur, with the right mix of idealism and weariness. The age difference between him and Julia Ormond as Guinevere is quite realistic, as Arthur would hardly have been a young man after years of campaigning. If you dislike Richard Gere, you probably won’t like him in this movie; but if you like him or don’t have an opinion, you’ll find his performance as Lancelot quite acceptable.

First Knight
Just as in written literature, each Arthurian movie reflects the concerns of its time in how it interprets the legend. In First Knight, the characters’ behavior and motivations are decidedly modern, as are various smaller touches like the formations of soldiers and the flower-petal-confetti-throwing reception at Camelot. Oddly enough, by being "modern," the film is true to the way the legends have been handled overall. The popular image of the "real" Arthur’s time is of knights in plate armor jousting for a lady’s favor, but this image comes not from real history, but from the re-imagining of Arthur centuries later by the French. That said, First Knight does go a bit overboard. The hand-held mini-crossbows are a bit much, the armor on Arthur’s knights looks more decorative than practical, and the architecture goes wild, even including a decidedly gothic church. With just a touch more subtlety, First Knight could have been better.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is satisfactory. The image is not especially sharp, but it’s presentable. There is some mild noise in the image, and a few flaws in the print appearing as speckles now and then. The contrast is satisfactory, including in several scenes that occur at night or in dim light. Color seems to be strong and accurate, showing off the use of strong primary colors at various points in the film (vividly green grass, blue rooftops, and so on).

First Knight
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is quite good. The soundtrack provides lovely music that doesn’t overwhelm the dialogue, which is clear and crisp. The surround sound comes into play well in a few scenes, such as the battles, with the sounds of horses’ hooves and clashing swords.

There are no extras on this disc, unless you count the inclusion of the pan-and-scan version of the film. Come on, Columbia, why didn’t you ditch the pan-and-scan and give us a nice featurette or two about the making of the film?

Overall, I have to say that I found First Knight to be an enjoyable and engaging film. On a second viewing, some of the anachronisms stood out, but the heart of the film is in the right place, in the emotional consequences of the love triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur.