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Newt’s Knights – the real meaning of First Knight

Tuesday, July 18, 1995

. . . if Ben Cross is Saddam Hussein, then (and I hesitate to say it) Richard Gere as Lancelot is Newt Gingrich

It’s a cliche that history books say more about the time they were written than the time they describe, but the recent crop of medieval-based films have shown that the same is true of historical films. You go for swashbuckling and damsels in distress, and end up with a discussion of big government versus the rights of the individual.

Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s latest film, and Mel Gibson’s forthcoming epic Braveheart both describe the little man fighting for freedom against the English military and political machine. First Knight, despite being a reworking of the story of King Arthur, shares this uneasiness with government intervention into individual lives, however well-meant.

All three films are surprisingly secular. The setting might be the distant past, but there is no hint of magic or mysticism. This is in contrast with the sword and sorcery films of the 1980s, such as Highlander, Legend, or Excalibur. In all these, destiny and magic are important, and the worlds on show feel very different from our own. With the recent films, however, we get contemporary political concerns dressed up in armour and stuck on a horse.

First Knight show this most clearly. There is no Merlin or Mordred, and Arthur is portrayed by Sean Connery as a well-meaning liberal. The Knights of the Round Table are ‘members of the High Council’, and the carving on the Table itself declares, ‘In serving each other we become free’. 

It all sounds like democracy not feudalism, and it doesn’t take much of a leap to see Camelot as America. We’re told that having won a prolonged war, the kingdom now looks forward to peace and prosperity. Camelot also offers protection to smaller nations which share its values, such as Guinevere’s Lyonesse. Arthur is a Bill Clinton figure, stressing his belief in law and the responsibilities citizens owe to one another.

King Arthur certainly means well, but we are shown that all is not as it should be. Malagant, the compulsory English bad guy (played by Ben Cross), repeatedly describes Camelot as a dream, and his actions question how realistic Arthur is being. “People don’t want brotherhood, they want leadership,” Malagant explains, plausibly.

Despite Arthur’s attempts at diplomacy, Malagant conquers Lyonesse, and Camelot’s response is the medieval equivalent of Operation Desert Storm – an impressive show of force with an inconclusive result. Malagant is beaten but not destroyed, and you start to wonder if Lyonesse has any oil reserves.

Malagant is the Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic of the piece, showing that things would be fine for the Kings of Camelot or the White House if everybody played by the one set of rules. Malagant points out, ‘Other people live by other laws,’ and Arthur falls back on the suspicious defence that “What we hold to be right and good and true,” must be right and good and true for everyone else as well. Which sounds a lot like, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”.

However, if Ben Cross is Saddam Hussein, then (and I hesitate to say it) Richard Gere as Lancelot is Newt Gingrich, and he poses the real threat to King Arthur’s big ideas of big government.

Lancelot exemplifies the fashionable idea that you don’t need much government at all – people do much better when left to their own devices. Described in the opening titles as ‘a wanderer who had never dreamed of peace or justice or knighthood’, he knows what he wants and how to get it – twice he rescues Guinevere single-handedly where all of Arthur’s well-drilled troops had failed.

Richard Gere keeps his American accent – the only one heard in the film – and Lancelot’s brand of rugged American individualism is seen even after he has become one of Arthur’s knights. In battle, he leaves the ranks of helmeted horsemen to fight on his own, with his head uncovered.

Malagant and Lancelot have little to do with the existing Arthurian material, and the ending of the film is also more Malibu than Malory. Arthur dies idealistically and foolishly, and Lancelot is left as the new ruler of Camelot under instructions to ‘look after’ Guinevere.

There is some justice to this, as Sean Connery always looked too old for Julia Ormond, but Arthur’s death underlines what we should take from the film.  His idea of beneficent big government is a dream, and he dies with his eyes open, having been woken at the last by the realisation that people (even those you love) just can’t live up to the ideal.

So we are left with the independent Lancelot in charge, who, like Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson in the other historical summer releases, won’t be told what to do by anyone. With his dying breath, Arthur tells Lancelot, ‘you’re the future’, and in a worrying way, maybe he is.

(first published in The Irish Times, Tuesday July 18th, 1995)

Posted by David in • Irish TimesFilm