Monday, September 07, 2009

“This is what’s called an oubliette. That’s French for “a place of forgetting.” Your quarters, my lady.”


Sometimes onomatopoeia is the only way to express an intro for a movie. Thus, it is with a resounding SIGH that my obsession with Arthurian Legend brings me to 1995, and a Jerry Zucker film called…First Knight.

I hope you appreciate this.

So, in the waning days of Camelot, border troubles in England-land by a would-be bandit king cause a young noblewoman to marry King Arthur while a creepy stalker falls in lust with her, eventually toppling a mighty kingdom in the process. And then there’s like two, maybe three fight scenes in 134 very, very long minutes.

Guinevere: Julia Ormond plays the female lead character. Guinevere is just so wonderful. Her father died, leaving the town/community/land/place of Lyonesse for her to run. It is a place of happy peasants who will happily play kickball with their lady and who will happily be scammed by wandering swordsmen. When the Bad Guy threatens her land, she readily accepts a wedding proposal from King Arthur. A proposal given before the beginning of the movie, that’s how wonderful Guinevere is. Anyway, she jumps into a carriage escorted by Arthur’s troops and travels to Camelot when wouldn’t you know that the Bad Guy’s goons ambush them. Anyway, the carriage goes out of control and she eventually gets rescued by Lancelot, who was just passing through. She gets to Camelot and gets kidnapped by the Bad Guy’s men because she was so considerate of her peasants that she never bothered to check if the hooded fellow in the boat claiming to be from her village actually WAS from her village. Seriously, she deserved to be kidnapped for that. Anyway, the whole “adultery” angle with Lancelot is played pretty badly, with other characters repeatedly saying that Guinevere is innocent in the matter, taking the blame off of her, even though the whole situation where Arthur finds her sucking face with Lancelot is entirely her fault. The audience is being told its not her fault, even though the actions seen say differently, and that we should still like her. And I realize I’ve written a lot about her here, but honestly, she’s at the core of my problems with this film. I realize its not a 1:1 ratio, but she’s pretty damn high on my Mary Sue scale.

Lancelot: Richard Gere is the other character that ruined the movie. The Lancelot he’s given is a traveling sellsword, a commoner who goes from town to town making money off of villagers who aren’t as good at sword fighting as him, jaded fellow that he is. Which isn’t all that bad of a place to start a character at. Sure, its not the actual Lancelot from Malory and other sources, but whatever. That’s not the greatest offence. He first meets Guinevere when he rescues her from the Bad Guys and immediately starts hitting on her, and continues to do so after she tells him she’s going to be married to Arthur. Obviously as a commoner he’s not bound by rules of honor and whatever, but at that point he’s really no better than the Bad Guys aside from not actually tearing her clothes off; the innuendo and the leering looks are still there. He talks about being in love and everything, but he continues to know nothing about her as a person. When she gets to Camelot, he follows, eventually navigating a really stupid device called the “Gauntlet” to get an audience with the King (and with the future Queen, obviously). Arthur takes him under his wing, and when Guinevere gets herself kidnapped through her own stupidity, obviously Lancelot chases after her, not out of any loyalty or friendship to Arthur, but because he’s simply obsessed with the woman. There’s a sloppy rescue, and the two finally start asking the important questions of a budding relationship like “So where are you from? What are your hobbies?” but its well over an hour into the film at that point. Anyway, they do the whole “I love you but I can’t” spiel, and she marries Arthur. There’s a battle against the Bad Guys and Lancelot proves his battle worthiness and finally, FINALLY gets some character development in seeing that yes, Arthur is indeed one of the good guys helping to fight the good fight against injustice, and he decides to do the noble thing and leave Camelot because he doesn’t want to hurt Arthur, but the two DO hurt Arthur by smooching when he walks in, so there’s the trial and the bad guys bust in and mortally wound the King because this asshole had to be a creepy stalker who was more interested in getting into Guinevere’s pants than either working for a greater good or getting to know her until its too late. Now the reason why this character section is so damn long is because this IS OUR HERO, THE GUY WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE ROOTING FOR. THROUGH THE ACTIONS OF A CREEPY STALKER, CAMELOT FALLS AND DARKNESS DESCENDS UPON THE LAND, AND HE’S STILL SUPPOSED TO BE THE HERO OF THE MOVIE. THIS IS HOW YOU DON’T WRITE LANCELOT!

King Arthur: Sean Connery received top billing, but he’s really a secondary character, reacting to the two “heroes” of the film. He shows up fairly well into the film, and sure, he throws a pretty fair performance, but its all reactionary. There’s the whole December-May Romance thing thrown in, but Arthur’s shown as a hero in decline, and, well, he’s ultimately too good for the Guinevere of the movie. When he’s finally betrayed, there’s a lot of pain there, and it actually does hurt, so he does a decent job of that. Its just that he gets marginalized in the love story so much, and that the whole “Lancelot & Guinevere are good and belong together” thing gets shoved down the audience’s throat when anybody who knows even the faintest about the Arthurian cycle knows that when Arthur died, England went to shit. So yeah, I really felt bad for Connery having a weak character to work with who died a punk-ass death at the end of the movie (like it’s a spoiler for a thousand year old legend).

Prince Malagant: Ben Cross is the Villain, the rebel lord who doesn’t want to drink Arthur’s Kool-Aid and tow the line. Apparently he was once a member of the Round Table, but left under unhappy circumstances and has been a thorn in the king’s side. He’s the Bad Guy, and ultimately responsible for Arthur’s death. Not Mordred. Not Morgan le Fay or any of the established legitimate threats for the canonical Arthur’s fall, but Malagant. I will admit that Malagant is the most interesting character, since he’s got the most depth. He’s an asshole who’s ultimately in it for himself, he’s disillusioned with Arthur’s dream, and he’s nihilistic about Arthur’s God & Law & everything. He makes his living as a border raider, leading an army of like minded individuals who manage a surprising number of odd feats for the period, like elaborate traps to catch Guinevere, a distant, slightly soggy hideout that’s pretty well fortified, and hand crossbows suitable for cavalry use, which didn’t become popular in Europe until at least the 1200s. Seriously, these guys are fucking resourceful and why the movie isn’t about them is beyond me. When Malagant isn’t on screen, the movie suffers from his lack of glowering and scene chewing. Sure he’s officially the Bad Guy, but damn it if I wouldn’t rather watch him than the idiots we’re saddled with for the actual movie.

The Round Table Knights: I lump them in together because while each one has a name of an actual Arthurian Knight (like Agravaine or Gaheris or whatever) each one is as interchangeable and as lacking in any personality as the next. Being blonde or having a beard are not valid characterizations. They’re just there to be there and are completely wasted in the story.

Now, we need a badass, and none has presented himself. There is one guy in Malagant’s army that, during the runaway carriage scene, chases the carriage down on his horse, leaps up onto it, climbs to the roof, hacks his way into the passenger compartment with an axe and leaps into it. Sadly, he’s knocked out of the moving vehicle by Guinevere and crashes into a tree, but do you know how hard it is for a horseman to actually do that? That anonymous henchman had a pair of brass ones, was just trying to do his job of capturing the lady, and for that brief moment of screen time, he almost got shit done. The movie suffered so much without him as a recurring character, and he was the only character I felt real sympathy for.

Jerry Zucker. This is the same man who co-directed Airplane! Feel free to sigh as a tiny part of you dies. I don’t want to say that there’s nothing of merit here visually, because its generally very well shot. There are some great visual scenes, particularly the torch-lit nocturnal arrival at Camelot and the overhead shots of the Round Table, but the overall pacing of the movie is, well, glacial. Worse is the costuming. I’m willing to let a lot of ahistorical bullshit slide when it comes to movies, but this movie doesn’t even try. Crossbows?? Uniforms for KNIGHTS?? Half-plate armor?? Crossbows?? Everything in Camelot is BLUE? Everything for Malagant is BROWN? CROSSBOWS!? Any one of those elements might be forgivable. Hell, if it was a pure fantasy movie made for the Sci-Fi channel, set in a I-just-made-it-up-right-now kingdom called Terania, I’d be willing to let all of them slide, but this is a KING ARTHUR MOVIE. That kind of shit will NOT fly here at RMWC.

Action scenes. Yeah, there are some of those, but only two of note. The night battle outside of Lyonesse is actually sorta, kinda cool, but over really quickly. The final battle inside Camelot during the day, while a legitimate fight scene that’s given time and spotlight, just comes way, way to late into the movie for me to care. By the time the climactic fight scene came up, I was over at my movie shelf organizing things and scouting out films for later viewing, that’s how much this movie drew me in (hint: not a lot). By the end, I simply Did. Not. Care.

Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton wrote this movie, and I lay most of the blame squarely on them. The Lancelot/Guinevere dialog is just painfully bad, and that’s what most of the movie is. Character development is minimal at best and there are only like four characters that get any spotlight in a 134 minute movie. Arthur & Malagant get some interesting stuff, but neither get a lion’s share of screen time. Pacing is pretty terrible, and the ahistorical nature of the movie is laughably bad. I hate to say this, but the writing is so bad all around for this movie without any redeeming qualities. They don’t even use an oubliette right.

Oh, Jerry Goldsmith, this terrible movie does not deserve your awesome musical score. The soundtrack for this movie is entirely appropriate to Arthurian legend, with equal parts Epic and ADVENTURE! If you absolutely must subject yourself to this movie, do so only through the soundtrack, which actually kicks all kinds of ass.

When I first saw this movie in high school, I thought it was long and boring. When I gave it a chance recently with my “grown-up” sophistication, I thought it was long and boring and terribly written. Really, the writing is the ultimate bearer of guilt in this movie, with unlikable heroes, terrible dialog and terrible pacing. It fails as an action movie, and it fails as a Romance (both the magic & mystery kind from Medieval times featuring courtly love and the modern kissy-face kind), both of which are pillars of Arthurian cinema. There are really only two reasons for seeing this movie. First, you might be under duress. Second, you might be like me and willingly subject yourself to Arthurian films whether they be good or bad. Otherwise, AVOID THIS MOVIE. Gnaw your arm off if you have to! Divorce your wife of fifteen years and abandon your children to a step-dad named Otis if you have to! Convert to Scientology if you have to! Just don’t subject yourself to this film!

However, this is NOT the worst King Arthur movie I’ve ever seen, but that little turd will be saved for another soul-crushing time.

Geez, even the trailer's boring.

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