First Knight (UK - BD)
Our own Scott McKenzie checks out the Blu-ray release of this medieval movie...
King Arthur (Sean Connery) is an ageing monarch and has decided to seek a wife late in life. He proposes to Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond), who accepts, but she hasn't bargained on the appearance of Lancelot (Richard Gere). The dashing rogue charms the queen-to-be and they share moments that remain hidden from the king in the run up to their impending marriage. In the meantime, King Arthur takes Lancelot under his wing while ex-knight of the round table Sir Malagant launches his plans to overthrow the monarchy.
First Knight was released in 1995 and only managed to recoup half of its $75 million budget at the US box office. Unfortunately, this isn't because it's an overlooked masterpiece; the reasons for its failure are pretty clear to all but the most undiscerning viewer. First of all, the decision seems to have been made to completely throw anything we know about King Arthur and Camelot down the toilet and just use the names of the characters to cobble together a supposed romantic epic. If you were looking for Excalibur, Merlin the magician or the lady in the lake, you've made a grave mistake in sitting down to watch First Knight.
Richard Gere's performance is right out of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood school of acting, i.e. just be yourself and to hell with your American accent. As a result, he's no more than an American with long hair and it doesn't exactly make it easy to picture him as the English hero he's supposed to be playing. Julia Ormond was hot Hollywood property in the mid-nineties, but surely not on the strength of this performance. There isn't any chemistry between Gere and Ormond and their romance feels like a product of plot necessity rather than their love being written in the stars. Sean Connery doesn't show up until half an hour into the movie and to his credit, he positively chews up the scenery, stealing every scene, but I'm sure even he would admit that this isn’t among his greatest performances.
Jerry Zucker was a very odd choice to direct First Knight and he admits on his commentary track that he doesn't have any love of Arthurian legend. The dodgy dialogue and pantomime performances make the movie feel like a spoof, which you might expect from the director of Airplane!, but of course there are no punch lines and this makes for an uneven tone throughout. This is complicated by the changing focus of the plot between the blossoming romance of Lancelot and Guinevere and the antagonism of Sir Malagant. When the story changes focus, the other storyline takes a backseat and we're constantly forced to change our minds about who we're rooting for.
The unintentional pantomime theme means that First Knight can be considered good clean family viewing. Well, family viewing at least. Life in medieval times seems to be very pleasant, even for the poor and no one seems to have a spot of dirt on their colourful outfits. Lancelot and Guinevere's affair is never consummated and there's very little blood in a swordplay movie that probably suffered from being released in the same year as the infinitely more brutal Braveheart. If I had young children, I wouldn't be worried about letting them watch anything on screen here, but on the other hand I could think of plenty of other movies I'd choose to show them first.
First Knight does have a few saving graces. The production design is impressive and a large slice of the budget (that wasn't spent on Sean Connery) was well used to create the massive sets. Some of the fight scenes are engaging enough, but fall far short of the standards we have now come to expect in life after Lord of the Rings. British viewers will be pleased to see appearances from 'Finchy from The Office' and Rob Brydon, but you can probably tell I'm clutching at straws to find positive things to say about First Knight and there's just not enough to recommend the movie at all.
First Knight is presented in 1.85:1/1080p. While I'm confident this movie hasn't looked this good since it hit cinema screens, the quality on show here isn't what we've come to expect from this new generation of optical disc. The detail in the picture is generally fine but wide external shots lack sharpness in the background and the extra detail offered by Blu-ray highlights the dodgy blue screen work. First Knight is a colourful movie and the picture represents this well but there are also patches of grain and the screen flickers occasionally, which contributes to an overall unrewarding visual experience.
This release comes with a Dolby TrueHD track, but just as the video quality promised much and delivered little, the story is also true here but to a lesser degree. There is good detail on show in the surround track and the battle scenes are all the more rewarding for it. The score also sounds fairly impressive here and Jerry Zucker freely admits on the commentary track that Jerry Goldsmith would have had a chance at the Oscar had his music been featured in a better movie. However, the dialogue is a little muted and while this isn't a complaint about the movie itself, the audio quality of some of the extra features is quite frankly awful.
Director Jerry Zucker and producer Hunt Lowry provide a commentary track that is very honest and neither of them is under any illusion about the dubious quality of their output. They do focus on the good points of the movie though, and almost apologise to production designer John Box while singing his virtues. Another commentary track is provided by a professor of Arthurian legend, who delights in pointing out the huge amounts of artistic licence employed by the filmmakers. Four deleted scenes are available here, all with a battered picture, some without sound and none of which add anything to a movie that's already too long.
There are three featurettes that were obviously filmed during the production because they include interviews with Sean Connery, who I'm sure would refuse to answer any questions about First Knight if you were to approach him about it now. 'The Quest for Camelot' focuses on the actors as they talk about their characters and their reasons for taking on the roles. 'The Creation of a Kingdom' includes interviews with John Box and shows how the huge castle sets were built, which left me feeling that the movie could have been so much better if the writers had done a better job. 'Knights in Training' is a very odd featurette. It features the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, who specialise in working out how swordsmen in days gone by fought with their medieval weapons. This sounds like an interesting setup, but what we actually end up with is a very earnest chap dressing up like a knight and hitting a tree with swords, and it's all very silly.
Given the huge amount of money spent on the movie and the big name cast, it's a shame to report that First Knight is a bit of a stinker. Revisiting it on Blu-ray highlights the fact that's it's also a stinker that hasn't aged well. The movie hasn't been cleaned up nearly as much as other pre-DVD movies that have recently been released in high definition. Most of the extras are pure filler but the audio commentary tracks on this release are genuinely entertaining, highlighting the flaws of the movie more than the positive aspects, so fans of the movie might not appreciate the sentiment as much as those who just take the movie for what it is—not very good.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Scott McKenzie
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 5th May 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Italian, Dolby Digital 5.1 Hungarian, Dolby Digital 5.1 Czech, Dolby Digital 5.1 Polish, Dolby Digital 5.1 Russian
Subtitles: Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English HoH, English, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Swedish, Turkish
Extras: Director and Producer Commentary, Arthurian Legend Commentary, The Quest for Camelot, The Creation of a Kingdom, In Shining Armor: Knights in Training, Deleted and Extended Scenes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jerry Zucker
Cast: Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Julia Ormond, John Gielgud,
Genre: Action, Drama and Romance
Length: 128 minutes
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