Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: director Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword reminds us of the wide range of approaches that filmmakers have taken towards staging the Matter of Britain across the decades. It gives me great pleasure to spend a full week delving into some of the many other flavors of King Arthur films that have preceded Ritchie's contemporary stab at the material.

It's genuinely upsetting that First Knight isn't a good movie. William Nicholson's screenplay, from a story by Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton and Nicholson, isn't "great" in any real sense of the word, but it's feisty and goofy in some surprisingly enjoyable ways. It feels like a throwback, in the best possible way, to a frothy, melodramatic 1930s or 1940s period piece, back in the days when classic literary adaptations generally ripped all the stuffing out of their source material and re-fashioned them as star vehicles. It's about as insincere and casual an adaptation of the mythological corpus surrounding King Arthur and the court at Camelot as I think it would be possible to concoct, taking very little other than the names of characters and the basic situation, completely abandoning the tone and themes of the traditional legend in favor of a stock bodice-ripper - albeit one in which all bodices survive intact.

This ought to be completely horrible, and yet it's kind of delicious: such a thorough top-to-bottom reinterpretation of the material that it no longer feels like a travesty and instead like a keen window into how the story can be bent to serve a new historical moment. It's supremely unsatisfying Arthuriana, mind you. The triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot (played here by Sean Connery, Julia Ormond, and Richard Gere; Connery is first-billed, but it's Gere's film - Connery doesn't appear for the first 30 minutes) is, in every other incarnation of the story I've ever encountered, necessarily a tragedy: it's about how a great social ideal of upstanding, transparent morality is betrayed and turned into dust by adultery and jealousy. First Knight, coming during the great '90s romantic drama boom, turns the material into pure soap opera. I won't lie, I kind of love its cheekiness, and if this exact screenplay had been filmed by Michael Curtiz in 1937 with Errol Flynn as Lancelot, Olivia De Havilland as Guinevere, and, I don't know, probably Claude Rains as Arthur (and there's not actually very much that would have needed changing: the film's sexual morality is decidedly Code-friendly, especially the way it revises the timeline of Arthur and Guinevere's marriage), I'd spend a lot of time apologising for it.

The Gere-Ormond-Connery incarnation of the scenario is, shall we say, not a film I want to apologise for, though I'd be happy to accept an apology from the filmmakers for wasting my time (and, in fact, I could apparently get one: my understanding is that director Jerry Zucker's DVD commentary consists in large part of him being embarrassed to have made such a mediocre piece of shit). Other than the screenplay, it manages to do almost literally everything wrong, with only a few exceptions. Jerry Goldsmith's generally okay Romantic score has some particularly rich bits and pieces, especially the motif when we first arrive in Camelot; Walter Much's editing uses reaction shots in some surprisingly exciting ways. Ormond isn't giving a good performance per se, but she's been very well-cast, visually, as a great beauty with a certain flintiness behind her eyes and a hard sense for realpolitik that reveals itself in the set of her brow and mouth. Is that it? I think that's it. Zucker is quite a bland director: sluggishly, even indifferently nudging through the material and flat-out giving up when the action scenes kick in. He also leaves his actors to twist in the wind, leading to three completely different lead performances that feel like they belong in three different movies:Β  Ormond is the one who's kind of okay. Connery, who is substantially too old for the part (the opening crawl - in a gross, installed-with-Word font - suggests this was early in the king's career, during his most idealistic phase), is boring and sleepy, delivering all of Arthur's airy Right vs. Might statements in a quiet hush that suggests less regality, more indifference.

Gere's Lancelot deserves a paragraph all his own. Despite everything, I might have still liked the experience of watching First Knight, as a low-key riff on legendary material, but Gere as a leading man slaughters it. The character, as written, is already a bit unpleasant in certain ways: he's something of a smug asshole whose flirtation with Guinevere is leering if we're being generous, and quasi-rapey if we're not. He's a flim-flam man (we meet him doing sword tricks as an itinerant entertainer) and braggart, and it would be easy to imagine a performance that would lean too heavily on everything worst about him. Gere doesn't just lean on these things: he amplifies them. It's already distracting that in a cast of English actors (and one very prominent Scot), Gere is so laissez-faire about letting his flat Mid-American accent fly; if anything, I think he even stresses it - I've seen plenty of Gere performances where he sounds more refined than he does here. Worst yet, he plays the role completely anachronistically, as a lackadaisical California-style free spirit with a side helping of Midwestern "aw shucks" whenever Arthur says something nice to him. I'm not a huge Gere fan, but I concede he's often a charismatic, charming sort; not here. First Knight is easily the worst of his performances I've ever seen.

Gere's staggeringly careless, distracting performance is kind of part and parcel of the film's overarching problem with being indifferent and sloppy. The 1990s were a small golden age of pre-industrial costume dramas, some of which looked excellent and some which looked even worse than this, but First Knight is still pretty impressively artificial. Possibly the single biggest annoyance with the film's design is the swords wielded by Arthur's knights: they're identical. And one critical scene at the very end of the film is staged to make it particularly noticeable how identical they are. Almost as bad are the knights' uniforms, which feel powerfully close to the outfits from the contemporaneous TV sci-fi show Babylon 5 (which had its own Arthuriana fetish). Indeed, the designa s a whole is pretty uninspired: the great walled city of Camelot is all in plastery beige and blue slate roof tiles, and looks pretty much exactly like the Fantasyland area at Disneyland.

It's all quite dispiriting, because the story really should be good, and the woodland cinematography, by Adam Greenberg, is actively beautiful, and the idea of Sean Connery as King Arthur is one of those things that sounds magnificent right up until you see it. Maybe 20 years earlier, around the time he made the sentimental and elegant "Robin Hood as an old man" romance Robin and Marian, he might have even been great in the role. But First Knight is just a big ol' disappointment, and all the more so since it's so easy to imagine a much better version of the same movie.