The film follows the rogue Lancelot's romance with Lady Guinevere of Leonesse, who is to marry King Arthur of Camelot, while the land is threatened by the renegade knight Malagant. The film is noteworthy within Arthurian cinema for its absence of magical elements, its drawing on the material of Chrétien de Troyes for plot elements and the substantial age difference between Arthur and Guinevere.
The film's opening text establishes that King Arthur (Sean Connery) of Camelot, victorious from his wars, has dedicated his reign to promoting justice and peace and now wishes to marry. However, Malagant (Ben Cross), a Knight of the Round Table, desires the throne for himself and rebels.
The film opens with Lancelot (Richard Gere), a vagabond and skilled swordsman, dueling in small villages for money. Lancelot attributes his skill to his lack of concern whether he lives or dies. Guinevere (Julia Ormond), the ruler of Lyonesse, decides to marry Arthur partly out of admiration and partly for security against Malagant, who is shown raiding a village. While traveling, Lancelot chances by Guinevere's carriage on the way to Camelot, and helps spoil Malagant's ambush meant to kidnap her. He falls in love with Guinevere, who refuses his advances. Though Lancelot urges her to follow her heart, Guinevere remains bound by her duty. She is subsequently reunited with her escort.
Later, Lancelot arrives in Camelot and successfully navigates an obstacle course on the prospect of a kiss from Guinevere, though he instead kisses her hand. He also wins an audience with her husband-to-be, Arthur. Impressed by Lancelot's courage and struck by his recklessness and freewheeling, Arthur shows him the Round Table which symbolizes a life of service and brotherhood, and warns Lancelot that a man "who fears nothing is a man who loves nothing."
That night, Malagant's henchmen arrive at Camelot and kidnap Guinevere. She is tied up and carried off to Malagant's headquarters, where she is held hostage. Lancelot poses as a messenger to Malagant only to escape with Guinevere and return her to Camelot. Once again, Lancelot tries to win her heart, but is unsuccessful. On the return journey, it is revealed that Lancelot was orphaned and rendered homeless after bandits attacked his village, and has been wandering ever since.
In gratitude, Arthur offers Lancelot a higher calling in life as a Knight of the Round Table. Amidst the protests of the other Knights (who are suspicious of his station), and of Guinevere (who struggles with her feelings for him), Lancelot accepts and takes Malagant's place at the Table, saying he has found something to care about. Arthur and Guinevere are subsequently wedded. However, a messenger from Lyonesse arrives, with news that Malagant has invaded. Arthur leads his troops to Lyonesse and successfully defeats Malagant's forces. Lancelot wins the respect of the other Knights with his prowess in battle. He also learns to embrace Arthur's philosophy, moved by the plight of villagers.
Lancelot feels guilty about his feelings for the queen and loyalty to Arthur and in private announces his departure to her. She cannot bear the thought of him leaving and asks him for a kiss, which turns into a passionate embrace, just in time for the king to interrupt. Though Guinevere claims to love both Arthur and Lancelot – albeit in different ways – the two are charged with treason. The open trial in the great square of Camelot is interrupted by a surprise invasion by Malagant, ready to burn Camelot and kill Arthur if he does not swear fealty. Instead Arthur commands his subjects to fight, and Malagant's men shoot him with crossbows. A battle between Malagant's men and Camelot's soldiers and citizens ensues, and Lancelot and Malagant face off. Disarmed, Lancelot seizes Arthur's fallen sword and kills Malagant, who falls dead on that same throne he so desired. The people of Camelot win the battle, but Arthur dies of his wounds. On his deathbed, he asks Lancelot to "take care of her for me" – referring to both Camelot and Guinevere. The film closes with a funeral raft carrying Arthur's body floating out to sea, which is set aflame.Sean Connery as King Arthur
Richard Gere as Lancelot
Julia Ormond as Guinevere
Ben Cross as Prince Malagant
John Gielgud as Oswald
Liam Cunningham as Sir Agravaine
Christopher Villiers as Sir Kay
Valentine Pelka as Sir Patrise
Colin McCormack as Sir Mador
Alexis Denisof as Sir Gaheris
Ralph Ineson as Ralf
Stuart Bunce as Peter
Angus Wright as The Marauder
Director Jerry Zucker, who also co-produced with Hunt Lowry, made First Knight as a follow-up to his Academy Award-nominated 1990 hit Ghost. Previously, he was primarily known for teaming with his brother David Zucker and with Jim Abrahams to create comedies such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun.
The script was written by William Nicholson. Adam Greenberg was in charge of cinematography, while production design was under John Box. The score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith. The film was edited and mixed by Walter Murch.
Filming was shot on location in Great Britain. Exteriors were done in Gwynedd, North Wales and in England around Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, with the wedding scene being shot at St Albans Cathedral. Interiors were completed at Pinewood Studios.
The critically acclaimed orchestral score for First Knight was composed and conducted by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith was hired as a last-minute replacement to other noteworthy film score veteran Maurice Jarre, who was hired to score the original three-hour cut, but as Jarre stated in a 1995 Film Score Monthly interview, he had four weeks to do 90 minutes and that was not enough time and declined the offer to score the film. As a result, Goldsmith had limited time to compose original music and was left with only three and a half days to record the entire score. A soundtrack was released 4 July 1995 through Epic Soundtrax and features ten tracks of score at a running time of forty minutes. Due to the shortness of the original release, bootleg versions began to appear in 2000. However, limited edition 2-CD (5,000 copies) soundtrack was released April 12, 2011 through La-La Land Records and features the complete score plus the original album tracks and additional alternate recordings.
The film earned a domestic gross of $37,600,435 and $90,000,000 in foreign markets; overall, earning a combined take of $127,600,435 worldwide.
Reviews were mixed. Based on 44 reviews, First Knight is rated at 45% at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.