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A knight in dull armor

Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for a memorable movie about King Arthur, and they called it Camelot.

Perhaps we can add John Boorman's Excalibur and Disney's The Sword in the Stone to that short list, too.

First Knight shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath with those films, primarily because it has so little to do with the Camelot legend we've loved so long. The names haven't been changed, and there is scant endearing innocence in director Jerry Zucker's film. Richard Gere stars as Sir Lancelot, a rakish swordfight hustler when the film begins, who falls in lust with Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond) during a ho-hum rescue sequence. She isn't interested _ after all, she's betrothed to Sean Connery's King Arthur _ until Lancelot shows off his martial arts-inspired swordfight skills. Then it's love at first laceration.

Arthur doesn't know he's bringing a rival into the fold when he gives Lancelot a seat at the fabled Round Table. The monarch doesn't get the hint when Lancelot marches off to save Guinevere single-handedly a couple of times. When the truth does slap him in the face, he merely pouts and throws his kingly weight around in a ludicrous, slapdash anticlimax.

Gere's performance as Lancelot isn't different from other Gere portrayals, except for the uncharacteristically unkempt hair. He's a distracting anachronism here, chucking the idea of using a noble accent and instead posing like a modern jet-setter on the make, a Greenwich, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court. Gere can still be a charmer _ judging from the sighs his seduction of Guinevere provoked in the audience _ but never appears as chaste or gentlemanly as Lancelot is described in the legend.

Connery, of course, has a majestic presence that makes him perfectly cast as King Arthur, but William Nicholson's screenplay reduces the character to a lovesick pup spouting Hallmark-card homilies. He also seems to be pushing this aged sex symbol bit too far; Connery's infrequent clinches with Ormond are either unconvincing or off-putting. Without romantic fire between the actors, the relationship between Guinevere and Arthur seems nothing more than that of a gold digger and her mark.

Can anyone explain why Hollywood "experts" are touting Ormond as the next Audrey Hepburn, and giving her so many chances to prove them wrong? In her first major role, Legends of the Fall, one could understand her lost-child blankness in heady acting company, and somewhat in character. The only thing she adds to that limited persona here is a bogus accent reminiscent of Winona Ryder's Valley-Brit in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Guinevere tells us early on that she is "not the yielding kind," but Ormond's trembling performance can't convince us of that.

First Knight's production design falls somewhat short of the authenticity of period epics like Rob Roy and Braveheart, and doesn't do justice to the paradise that Camelot is supposed to be. There is no legendary grandeur here, just some confetti and hors d'oeuvres and enough torches and candles to give romantic back-lighting to the actors. The mystique of Camelot should be an inspiration to Zucker, but he's too concerned with making his stars look good to worry much about their surroundings.

With one exception. The only scene in First Knight that gives an audience something fresh involves Lancelot running the gantlet _ a punishing obstacle course with spinning clubs, slashing swords and swinging axes _ for a chance to kiss Guinevere.

Zucker badly botches his battle scenes, which appear unambitious and tame next to the ferocity of Braveheart's bloodshed. At least that film had a vision _ even if it was only Mel Gibson admiring himself in a mirror. First Knight isn't sparkling enough to be a legend, isn't grubby enough for realistic drama or bad enough to completely dismiss. Call it a near-myth.

MOVIE REVIEW: C

First Knight

Director: Jerry Zucker

Cast: Richard Gere, Sean Connery, Julia Ormond

Screenplay: William Nicholson

Rating: PG-13; violence

Running time: 132 min.

Studio: Columbia Pictures

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