First Knight

Crimes:

  • Presenting the fall of Camelot with only slightly more visual flair than an average episode of Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman
  • Featuring Richard Gere at his least period-appropriate
  • Spending 134 minutes on one of the most famous love triangles in history without generating any suspense, tension, or romance

Defenders: Director Jerry Zucker and producer Hunt Lowry

Tone of commentary: Aggressively self-deprecating. Jerry Zucker sets the mood right out of the gate: “But if I were you, I’d go and catch something on HBO ’til this blows over.” Soon after, he adds, “We have to apologize to people who take this movie seriously, but we have a sense of humor about it.” Hunt Lowry is upbeat and positive, but Zucker does the lion’s share of the talking, finding as many ways as possible to criticize himself as a director without ever saying a bad word about anyone else. “It probably wasn’t the best idea for me to be directing a movie about the Arthur legend,” he explains, with simultaneously refreshing and frustrating candor, “being that I never really cared much for it, or medieval films.”

Zucker, best known as one of the directors behind the original Airplane!, quips throughout, responding to the opening exposition crawl with, “Doing the beginning this way kind of eliminated the people who couldn’t read…,” and explaining while Richard Gere (as Lancelot) tries to sell a bad guy on raping Julia Ormond (as Guinevere), “But he’s saying just what I was always thinking.” Later, before a big romantic moment between Ormond and Gere, Lowry tries to focus the discussion, with “We’re coming to the most talked-about scene in the movie right now. Amongst women.” Zucker responds, “Oh really? I didn’t know that. I could never get a woman to talk to me about this scene. I tried, I went to bars and stuff.” Lowry tries again, praising the stars’ chemistry: “If you want to kiss once, kiss well.” Zucker agrees: “I have to say, I love kissing Richard.”

What went wrong: In addition to Zucker’s self-criticism, there’s a suggestion of behind-the-scenes problems. Lowry admits, “This movie went through years of development, and drafts of screenplays,” and Zucker continues, “This movie was on-again, off-again. It went through different cast permutations, of course the usual budget wars, until it finally got going.” While Zucker is generally pleased with the film’s look, he does criticize one aspect of the actors’ appearance during the opening scene: “The hairstyles always end up to be the styles of the time the movie was made.”

Both producer and director are rapturous over William Nicholson’s script, but Zucker isn’t too happy with some forced backstory for Gere, saying, “This was a little silly. This was an attempt to get sympathy for Lancelot late in the movie which, I don’t know… Maybe this was a result of focus groups.” Zucker also probably isn’t cut out to be an action director: “I have to say, going over all these battles… I’d get a little bored. When it’s just a massive battle, I’m gonna get bored quickly.”

And then there’s the way the movie tries to exploit the myth of its main characters without really giving a damn about their history. As Zucker explains, “The thing about First Knight, for anybody who’s actually into the Arthur legend, it’s probably ludicrous, because we didn’t actually pay any attention to it, other than the names of the characters, and Camelot, and the idea of knights of the Round Table stuff.”

Comments on the cast: Everybody’s just all-around swell. In addition to praising the leads (Gere “really went for it,” Ormond is “fascinating,” and Sean Connery, who plays King Arthur, “knows this stuff”), Zucker finds time between half-apologies and reminiscing to praise the secondary cast, describing the then-92-year-old John Gielgud as a “wonderful, wonderful man,” and lauding Ben Cross, who plays the villainous Prince Malagant: “He’s an intense guy, really a great actor. In fact, he’s evil himself. No, no.”

There was some tension on the set. “Sean and Richard have very different personalities,” Zucker says. “Their first day of shooting together, Richard showed up a little late—not a lot, 15 minutes maybe—and Sean read him the riot act right off the bat.” But things worked out in the end.

Occasionally, Zucker’s worship of his actors gets to be a little much. “I don’t know if Sean is a hugger, really,” he confesses, “but I tried that for a while.” Even worse is when he tries to explain the age difference between Ormond and Connery: “I always kind of felt like Sean would have more women interested in having sex with him after he was dead than I did when I was in college.”

Inevitable dash of pretension: Lowry is too polite, and Zucker is too busy undercutting himself to get too snobby. Though Zucker does mistakenly think the ending of the film is affecting: “I think we sense by what Arthur has done, he has instilled the people of Camelot and Lancelot and Guinevere and all the knights with something that will endure, hopefully. They’ll never forget him. One can only hope that generations from then, the lessons will still be remembered.” But it’s hard to take this too seriously, given his earlier admission, “I tend to be driven by themes. You can see that in Airplane!” 

Commentary in a nutshell: Zucker, talking about a fight in the forest: “We got in the time allotted for the whole scene, finished half of it, and let second unit finish it. I remember doing a lot of that.”

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