Love Triangle Mightier Than Sword

'First Knight' revels in battles, but the field of romance matters more

Judging from its punning title and the fact that Jerry Zucker directed it - he cut his teeth on comedies like ''Airplane!'' and the first ''Naked Gun'' picture - you might think ''First Knight'' was a spoof of good King Arthur and the many movies he's inspired over the years.

There were times during its 2-1/4-hour length when I longed for the Monty Python gang to barge into the action - telling shaggy Lancelot he needs a major haircut, perhaps, or turning the Round Table into the world's largest pizza tray. But no, the movie is serious if not actually sober, retelling the old legend with a straight face, a reasonably warm heart, and a whole lot of muscle in the action scenes that punctuate the story like clockwork.

Like many an Arthurian film of old, it cares more about the love triangle between its main characters than sweeping issues like the conflict between civic duty and self-indulgence, or the king's dedication to the rule of law. Zucker also directed the popular ''Ghost,'' so it's not surprising that his camera dwells most convincingly on the moon-eyed gazes exchanged by Richard Gere's brash Lancelot and Julia Ormond's sensitive Guinevere, allotting just a few strong scenes to Sean Connery's regal Arthur and leaving the other knights mostly out of the picture.

Except the evil Malagant, of course, who struts through the story with a malevolent glare and a wicked yen to make life unpleasant for the Camelot crowd. He's played by Ben Cross with an antisocial gusto that nearly throws the film's romantic tone out of whack; but without him the battle scenes would seem even more perfunctory than they do.

More interesting than ''First Knight'' itself is the current spate of historical epics that it's part of - including the competently made ''Rob Roy,'' with Liam Neeson in the title role, and the hyperactive ''Braveheart,'' with Mel Gibson as director and star. Like those Scottish adventures, ''First Knight'' is proudly old-fashioned, combining nostalgia for premodern life with the dubious notion that love and death used to be simpler, nobler, and somehow more meaningful than they seem today.

The same attitudes surged through Hollywood westerns in the years before revisionists like Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman transformed their black-and-white values into multiple shades of gray. Westerns were hugely popular during the highly conservative 1950s period, just as the ''Star Wars'' saga - deliberately based on old westerns, matinee serials, and other morally uncomplicated sources - heralded a revival of conservatism as the '70s drew to a close.

Conservatism is again on the upswing, and sure enough, ''First Knight'' has all the traits of a classic western, from its hero-villain dynamics to its fondness for showdowns (crossbows and swords replace six-guns and rifles) and its cheerful willingness to surround a single female character with as many brawny men as it can crowd onto the screen. Such entertainments serve a clear purpose in conservative times, allowing Hollywood to peddle its usual packages of violence, desire, xenophobia, and machismo in tried-and-true settings safely removed from our own time and place.

While it's no masterpiece of its kind, ''First Knight'' arrives at a receptive moment for its brand of storytelling and will probably do well at the box office.

If it doesn't, blame ''Braveheart'' for stealing its thunder, and Gibson for upstaging Gere in the swordplay department. Not that Gere can't swing a flashing blade when he puts his mind to it - his style is one part Luke Skywalker, one part Zatoichi the samurai, and one part Errol Flynn from any number of 1930s and '40s swashbucklers. But his heart seems more engaged in the romantic scenes, when he and Ormond strike up a chemistry that's far more engaging than all the fighting stuff.

Connery is the best actor of the bunch, pulling off the film's most touching moment with his wordless reaction to Guinevere's abruptly discovered infidelity. The supporting cast is mostly solid. William Nicholson wrote the screenplay; Jerry Goldsmith composed the thumping score.

''First Knight'' has a PG-13 rating; it contains a great deal of violence.

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