Skip to main content

Why? WHHHYYYYYYY?!!


First Knight
(1995)

Did First Knight start life as a comedy? Obviously, it finished up as one (unintentionally). How did it come by a title that appears to be a bad pun on stagecraft (but with no good reason)? Nigh on every aspect of Jerry Zucker’s follow-up to Ghost is a bust, from the script, to the cast, to the costumes, to (yes) the direction. It’s as if all concerned laboured under the perverse desire to manifest the most horrendous version of Arthurian legend imaginable on a cinema screen.


Although, ignore the names Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere and you’d be understandably surprised to learn that these characters are intended to represent their mythic counterparts. True, there’s Camelot and the Round Table. And Malagant features in some stories. But there’s no Merlin, no Holy Grail, no Morgana. Excalibur remains unnamed. This is a land devoid of mythmaking, shorn of fantasy, lyricism and poetry. In their place, the lumbering and literal. Arthur is an old man, marrying for the first time. Lancelot is a wandering mercenary, who meets Guinevere before the king. I don’t make great demands at fidelity to the source material; there are quite enough variations of Arthurian lore from myriad different authors. Easily sufficient to stake a claim for legitimacy of a distinctive take. Make whatever changes you want in the service of a compelling tale (God knows, Excalibur has it’s problems as a result Boorman sticking to bits of text he should have excised). I just have no idea why anyone would gut the story of everything that compels or strokes the imagination. All that’s left is a ten-a-penny love triangle. One which proceeds to die on its arse.


In part, this is why I wonder about the comedy element. The script is so threadbare, you doubt there was a serious interest in the Arthur; the Dudley Moore version, perhaps. There’s also the suspicious presence of two of the credited storywriters; Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton are almost exclusively known for their comedy work. The finished screenplay is by William Nicholson, who would go on to contribute to Gladiator amongst other patchy works. The production went through a variety of permutations of possible stars and helmers (including Bond director Terence Young), before ending up in the malformed state we find it.


Not content with desecrating the story, there are the aesthetic elements to content with. The knights wear a combination of spandex and quilted knitwear (knghtwear?); all of it blue. As others have pointed out, it’s as if the main source of inspiration for the costume designers was Star Trek: The Next Generation. On top of such apparel comes the armour, which resembles oversided Lego, only more plasticky. John Gielgud looks like he bought his outfit at John Lewis.


And everything is shockingly clean. Not for Zucker the mud and squalor of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Nor for him the blood and fog of Excalibur. Camelot is disastrously overlit, as if the paint’s not yet dry. It proudly displays itself in pastel colours, airy and devoid of atmosphere. There’s no texture or shade. It’s a Disneyland castle.


But who knows; with a shrewdly cast trio of leads, perhaps it could have struggled towards something semi-respectable. Anyone fearing that Richard Gere, Julia Ormond and Sean Connery seemed a bizarre mismatch of ages and styles needed only recall that Zucker had score the biggest hit of 1990 with two leads audiences tended to give short shrift. Alas, this time his vision wasn’t so much skewed as boss-eyed.


Richard Gere is an absolutely horrid sight, and hilariously miscast. You could imagine him in one of brother David’s spoofs or a Mel Brooks effort; he’s absurdly inappropriate to every aspect of Lancelot. True, failing to disguise your accent did Kevin Costner no harm in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And I suspect this was in the back of the producers’ minds when the cast an American lead. But Gere isn’t just adrift of voice; he’s hopeless in the action scenes. And limp at the romance. There’s a shot during the climactic battle where he is galvanising himself atop his steed, in slow motion, and it appears that he is succumbing to an onslaught of indigestion. He dives off castle parapets like a man whose stuntman hates him (and then appears to engage in burst of water-skiing), runs the gauntlet in a somnambulist stupor, and you’d swear he’d never worked with a fight choreographer before. Apparently he revealed on set that this would be his last action role, but I’m trying to think of one where he actually tried to swashle his buck before (King David?)


His approach to romance is doubtless intended to be of the charming rogue variety, hence a jerky line like, “I can tell when a woman wants me I can see it in her eyes”. That might work if you’re Harrison Ford as Han Solo, with a deportment of self-conscious swagger behind you. If you’re Gere, that charmless man, it just makes you a complete tosser. Especially when your seductive move is to attempt to suck Guinevere’s entire head into your lower lip. I know, you’ll tell me he was stud-dom personified in the likes of An Officer and a Gentleman, but I’m suspicious of this. I suspect his success there was more by luck than magnetism.


The Pretty Woman star, who is most expressedly not a hamster smuggler, here appears to be to be attempting some of the upbeat jollity of Tom Cruise. Which can be infuriating enough when little Tom is at it (I’m thinking vintage, over-excitable Tom, here, the chap with a toothsome grin so piercing it could blind panthers), but an actor who doesn’t possess that energy level looks like a prat. And an even bigger one with his dye-perm and seeming inability to walk naturally. He appears slouchy and graceless next to his co-stars. It really looks like he can’t be bothered. Perhaps he thought they hired him to be Richard Gere (whoever that is) rather than Lancelot.  Gere only succeeds in showing the world that his range is as narrow as his pointy little eyes. Which blink a little more than we’re used to when he suffers some obligatory childhood flashbacks, but that’s about as emotional as he gets.


Apparently Sean Connery didn’t much appreciate tardy Richard, and chewed him out on the first day for his lateness. There’s zero chemistry between them; not even the tension of butting heads (as you can see between Connery and Hoffman in Family Business). It’s as if Sean took one look at the joker he was stuck sharing scenes with and decided it was hopeless. Usually you can count on Sean to deliver, in even the stodgiest of fare. Here, he’s a little bit dull. Not helping matters is that Arthur is written as an utterly unpersuasive monarch, mouthing platitudes and showing how he is remarkably progressive emotionally (it’s one of those movies where late 20th century values are alive and well in the 6th, , leaving the king looking like a big wuss). If Arthur had a pair of balls, instead of torturing himself over what to do (“As a man I may forgive, but as a king I must see justice done”; fortunately Ben Cross is about to save you any difficult choices), Connery might have upped his game., but it’s as difficult to see why he takes Lancelot to his bosom as it is to fathom Guinevere’s love for du Lac (and no, I’m not sure if Lancelot is supposed to be French in this). I hope Connery was working on his swing between takes, as nothing else followed through. You don’t often laugh at the Scot, but when he utters a desperate cry to God of “Why? WHHHYYYYYYY?!!” mirth is the only defence.


Julia Ormond had two or three years when there was buzz that she’d be a next big thing. I could never see it; she’s a decent actress, but she’s not a star. She doesn’t exude, or whatever it is stars are supposed to do. She’s unable to sell the idea that she’s fallen for Dick, but I don’t think she can really be blamed for that. She doesn’t fare well with Connery either, suggesting that the problems were deep within the carcass of the production. One can’t even work up a critique of Arthur’s dubious disposition, since he has clearly nurtured feelings for Guinevere since she was a highly inappropriate age. That may have been just an everyday part of life in the 6th century – and, we learn, to the TV kings of the late 20th  - but this is a highly revisionist take, so you can’t use that excuse. Ormond recites her lines like they’re Shakespeare. Unfortunately they’re just piffle. Her best showing is her first scene, where she proves reasonably adept a kicking a pigskin around.


We should be grateful for Ben Cross then, enjoying his chance to bask in the glory of Brit villainy in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. It’s not that he’s especially great, but he is awake. And his contempt for henchman Ralf (Ralph Ineson) raises the occasional chuckle. He was obviously into the part, as he clearly hasn’t washed his face for a couple of months. Malagant sounds like a made-up villain but his status as kidnapper of Guinevere is fairly well entrenched in Arthurian lore. His cry of “Burn everything” made me wistful for Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham. Liam Cunningham is fairly non-descript, and apparently Buffy/Angel actor Alex Denisof is one of the tepid Knights of the Round Table. Rob Brydon makes more of an impression than any of them, and he’s only features as an extra in the first scene. It’s all downhill from there. When a wretched child asks Lancelot, “Can I go home now?” the sad response is “Unfortunately there are another 30 minutes left”.


It occurs to me, based on the rabid right-winger bent of at least one of the Zuckers (apologies if I’m tarring Jerry with David’s brush; the latter poured all his energies into a “comedy” taking facile pot-shots at Michael Moore), that there might have been some contemporary subtext to this take on Camelot. Perhaps America as the world’s policeman wasn’t quite such a pervasive idea in the mid-90s, but there’d already been one Gulf War as a warm-up exercise. This King Arthur is most definitely an interventionist king; Malagant takes him to task on this very issue, asking, “Is the law of Camelot to rule the entire World?” If we consider that Arthur is fashioned as a well-intentioned and humanitarian figure, then surely his plans to bring the “entire world” to heel are “good” ones? Also of note is that Malagant lives in a cave, and emerges to wreak destruction in the “civilised” world. Very prescient, Jerry. Arthur brandishes the illusion of the democratic process; all are equal at the Round Table, but when it comes down to his whims, he rejects any notional veto on bringing Lancelot on as a knight (he’s right in the end, of course; mystifyingly Lancelot looks to rule the kingdom. So, Bush Jr., then?)


Something actually possessed me to see First Knight in the cinema on its released. I recalled it as pretty ropey, but it clearly didn’t hit home how ropey. There appears to be an endless appetite for witless reimaginings of this legend. It’s as if writers need to show they’re not just derivative hacks; they’re derivative hacks who sabotage all the best bits.  Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur was the last notable version and, as weak as it is, it looks quite respectable sat next to this tripe. Bryan Singer was attached to an Excalibur remake for a while (Why, Bryan, why?) Then there’s David Dobkin’s on-again off-again modern reimagining Arthur & Lancelot. Why? WHHHYYYYYYY?!!

*

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Trouble’s part of the circus. They said Barnum was in trouble when he lost Tom Thumb.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
(SPOILERS) Anyone of a mind that it’s a recent development for the Oscars to cynically crown underserving recipients should take a good look at this Best Picture winner from the 25thAcademy Awards. In this case, it’s generally reckoned that the Academy felt it was about time to honour Hollywood behemoth Cecil B DeMille, by that point into his seventies and unlikely to be jostling for garlands much longer, before it was too late. Of course, he then only went and made a bona fide best picture contender, The Ten Commandments, and only then pegged it. Because no, The Greatest Show on Earth really isn’t very good.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish (2018)
(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions …

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Monster? We’re British, you know.

Horror Express (1972)
(SPOILERS) This berserk Spanish/British horror boasts Hammer titans Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (both as good guys!) to its name, and cloaked in period trappings (it’s set in 1906), suggests a fairly standard supernatural horror, one with crazy priests and satanic beasts. But, with an alien life form aboard the Trans-Siberian Express bound for Moscow, Horror Express finishes up more akin to The Cassandra Crossing meets The Thing.

Countess Petrovski: The czar will hear of this. I’ll have you sent to Siberia. Captain Kazan: I am in Siberia!
Christopher Lee’s Alexander Saxton, anthropologist and professor of the Royal Geological Society, has retrieved a frozen corpse from Manchuria. Believing it might be the Missing Link he crates it up to transport home via the titular train. Other passengers include his colleague and rival Dr Wells (Cushing), an international spy, and an antic monk called Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, strikingly lunatic), who for some rea…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

You had to grab every single dollar you could get your hands on, didn't you?

Triple Frontier (2019)
(SPOILERS) Triple Frontier must have seemed like a no-brainer for Netflix, even by their standards of indiscriminately greenlighting projects whenever anyone who can’t get a job at a proper studio asks. It had, after all, been a hot property – nearly a decade ago now – with Kathryn Bigelow attached as director (she retains a producing credit) and subsequently JC Chandor, who has seen it through to completion. Netflix may not have attracted quite the same level of prospective stars – Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were all involved at various points – but as ever, they haven’t stinted on the production. To what end, though? Well, Bigelow’s involvement is a reliable indicator; this is a movie about very male men doing very masculine things and suffering stoically for it.