FIRST KNIGHT (1995)
Jerry Zucker's 1995 "First Knight" is a regal and romantic adaptation of the Camelot legend from the novel perspective of Sir Lancelot (played by Richard Gere), a knight of the Round Table. In this version, Lancelot, a man who lives and dies by the sword, encounters Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond) on her way to marry King Arthur (Sean Connery). When he follows her to Camelot and saves her from the evil Sir Malagant, Lancelot is welcomed by the King into the knighthood. As Malagant's forces attempt to overthrow the kingdom, Lancelot is forced to choose between his growing loyalty to the King and Camelot, and his love for Guinevere. This swashbuckling film contains strong performances by the lead actors, and simply gorgeous costumes and sets.
This film is rated PG-13 for some brutal medieval battles.
Auditions and Casting
Seasoned actor Sean Connery was the director Jerry Zucker's first and only choice to play the legendary King Arthur.
From the first day of casting, Zucker hoped to secure Julia Ormond in the role of Lady Guinevere. Zucker had been impressed by Ormond's performance as the tormented wife of a dictator in the Golden Globe and Emmy winning film, "Stalin."
In his role as Malagant, actor Ben Cross was reunited with Connery. Cross portrayed a military officer under the charge of a general played by Connery in "A Bridge too Far" nearly twenty years earlier. Cross was also honored to have the opportunity to work again with England's premier acting knight, Sir John Gielgud (Oswald). Cross and Gielgud both played main characters in the Oscar-winning "Chariots of Fire" almost fifteen years before.
Actor Richard Gere’s marriage to model Cindy Crawford was on the rocks during the filming of “First Knight.” Gere was hounded by the British tabloids, whose photographers even carved burrows in the fields where the crew was filming the battle scenes to ambush Gere with their cameras!
During the shoot, actress Julia Ormond hopped on a bus bound for town and discovered she had no money. Not a typical star, Ormond promptly got off and returned home on foot. On the incident, Ormond remarks: “[As a] typical actor... you get used to people looking after you and then you cease to function. I don't want to be that way." 1
To prepare for his role as King Arthur, Sean Connery had long conversations with another director, John Boorman, “who's a great King Arthur nut. He knows it all, the legends and stuff... He was always interested much more in the... mythological side of it." 2
To make the epic battle scenes look realistic, director Jerry Zucker hired a medieval weapons expert, John Waller, who performs demonstrations of medieval archery and swordplay throughout England. In addition,
the film required nearly three hundred suits of full body armor and over two hundred suits of armor for the horses, the largest amount of armor ever made for one picture in movie history. Zucker enlisted the help of armor designer Terry English, whose most famous “armor” was featured in the “Alien” movies.
In order to prepare Gere and Ben Cross (Malagant) for the sword scenes, former Olympic athlete and sabre trainer Bob Anderson made several trips to Los Angeles to work with the actors. Anderson is best known for his work training and choreographing sword scenes in the "Star Wars" movies, as well as "The Princess Bride" and "The Three Musketeers."
Anderson recalls Gere’s talent for swordsmanship: “We started with all the basics that make up a good swordsman... but instead of doing it with modern swords, we did it with the swords Richard was actually going to use in the movie... Richard's one of the nicest and best athlete swordsmen I've met so far... [He] is probably the best swordsman I've worked with in the context of learning and putting it into practice... I'm delirious about Richard Gere, very excited indeed. Not only is he a good athlete, but he is a dedicated actor who knows that it won't look good unless you train." 3
On rehearsing the sword fights, Gere recalls: “[Anderson and I] worked together many, many months... before we started shooting. The first few things we did with the swords, instead of looking to Jerry or anyone else, I was looking to Bob and saying, 'Is that OK?' He and I worked very hard... I was not good in the beginning. It took a lot of patience from Bob and a lot of hard work on both our parts, and I feel pretty happy with what we accomplished." 4
Anderson also used a little clever engineering to make Gere and Cross’ skills stand out above the other actors: "The fact that the sword, or the blade, is broad means that it's used in a very slow, heavy-handed way. For Lancelot and Malagant, I amalgamated the broadsword with the lighter sword blade so they can be very, very fast, and you can see in the movie that they are faster than the average guys around them. So, it's not just hack and slash -- there's some quite clever swordplay." 5
In addition, prop manager Dale Clark confesses that the aluminum swords were safer for actors. Although the dulled
swords caused no injuries during filming, they “ended up scuffed and bent so we had to keep on replacing blades."
6 Because 150 knights needed swords, scabbards and spare blades, the prop crew worked tirelessly to make the battle scenes come alive.
In designing the city of Camelot, Zucker wanted viewers to fall in love with medieval life: “I always wanted Camelot to be a place where everyone would want to live." 7
Legendary production designer John Box (famous for his work in classics such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Zhivago”)
built Camelot, Leonesse, and the other sites of the film from the ground up, using few existing structures.
Box remarks of his vision for Camelot: “It stands for hope, hope for better things in life, and that's why
the tradition lingers on." 8
Box was careful to consider what emotions his set designs would draw from the audience and the symbolic
nature of the scenery. Zucker recalls: “[Box] was the one who first said to me, 'Camelot has to be
masculine and Leonesse has to be feminine.' He turned out to be right about everything.” 9
In fact, Box created a barn for one of the village scenes that looked so authentic that English authorities requested that the structure remain after filming is completed!
Costume designer Nana Cecchi worked closely with Zucker to use distinctly different color groups for the various geographic areas in which the film takes place. Cecchi suggested that Leonesse, Guinevere's home, be painted in warm terra cotta hues while Camelot be characterized by simple lines and cool blues, grays and whites. The colors of Ormond’s costumes were matched accordingly. Cecchi also suggested to Zucker that the battle scenes resemble paintings. She brought in several art books during the shoot, as Zucker recalls: “When I was shooting the battle... [she] said, 'Look at this painting; this is what your battle should look like.' "
To create the scene in which Lancelot masters the gauntlet, Zucker brought in special effects supervisor George Gibbs, known for his Oscar-winning work in the “Indiana Jones” films and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Zucker recalls their first brainstorming sessions: “Gibbs initially built models of the Gauntlet and we would play with them in the office. We were like a bunch of kids sitting on the floor and playing with this thing. I knew the gauntlet would be great when I took a video camera and filmed a little toy man in the middle of the model, and I said, 'George, we've got to go all the way with this thing. We've got to make it big.’ " 11
Zucker chose North Wales as the exterior setting for Camelot. Box remarks: “Wales has hardly changed since medieval times.” A slate mine in North Wales was chosen for Malagant’s lair. Box remarks: “I said, 'No more corny castles. I knew that there were slate pits in Wales, so I said, 'Let's take Malagant underground into his own strange, cavernous world.' " 12
While Zucker was filming "First Knight," he learned that Mel Gibson was making “Braveheart,” another medieval epic at the same time: "It's never a pleasant thing to be in the middle of making a movie and find out that there are other movies being made about the same time period. But I took it as a good-luck omen because that happened to me [while producing] ‘Ghost,’ when ‘Ghost Dad’ and ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ opened at the same time." 13
Zucker chose not to include a modern-day love scene between Guinevere and Lancelot (Zucker chose only to film a kiss between the couple), to remain faithful to the historical legend: "A love scene would have compromised Guinevere, because she always does the right thing. If she had slept with Lancelot, her credibility would have been gone, and this movie is about responsibility over feelings." 14
Known for his dedication to human rights, Gere specially took time out of the shoot to endorse an organization supporting the rights of tribal peoples.
Relationships On and Off the Set
On co-starring with screen legend Sean Connery, actor Richard Gere remarks: "Working with Sean Connery was great and he has this incredible presence that made him perfect as the King." 15
Regarding his on-screen romantic counterpart, Gere remarks: "As for Julia Ormond, I'm a huge fan. She's great, really great... Smart, very funny, witty, knows her craft I inside out, and very beautiful." 16 Needless to say, Ormond found working with Gere and Connery to be a delight.
Of Gere, director Jerry Zucker dispels any rumors: "Richard has said he once was a bad boy both to the press and on the set. He's got a lot of volatility that makes him a great actor, but on the set he makes a really conscious effort. I don't know if it's his [religion] or what in his life, but I know every director I've talked to who's worked with him the last ten years says he's great." 17
Zucker also sets the record straight regarding Connery and Gere’s relationship: “Sean and Richard got along. First of all, they didn't have that many scenes together." 18