A knight who wanted to become king at all costs
‘Men don’t want brotherhood. They want leadership’
The story of a knight who wanted to become king at all costs
By Wali Zahid
Since it was released in 1995 and I started teaching leadership readiness through films to corporate executives and later to MBAs at the likes of CBM and Zabist in Karachi (mid-2000-onwards), First Knight had been my pivotal message: If you are a ready leader, the opportunity will travel to you.
To define readiness, I’ll use Wali’s Will-Skill Readiness Matrix.
In all movie runs, our highlight had been the hero, wanderer and swordsman Lancelot (played by Richard Gere) with a secondary focus on King Arthur of Camelot (played by Sean Connery) as a wise, just man with an eye for talent.
So, the premise had been this: if you are a highly-willed and highly-skilled leader, you can beat the armies of men. Glory, power, responsibility will travel to you – effortlessly. Of course, with a twist of events, the queen too.
What did Lancelot signify?
After he successfully navigates a dangerous obstacle course, in King Arthur’s words: ‘Well. Lancelot… you’re an unusual man. I’ve never seen such a display of courage, skill, nerve, grace and … stupidity.’ We took these five traits as a sign of a ready leader.
So in my courses, it always had been about the hero Lancelot.
Until last night!
When I watched the movie for the next run.
Strangely and subliminally, another character caught my attention this time: the villain, Prince Malagant (played by Ben Cross).
Malagant had been King Arthur’s first knight but left the just kingdom because he wanted to become king himself.
What happens then is a usual power play: on various ruses, he attacks Lyonesse, ruled by a weak Lady Guinevere (played by Julia Ormond), ambushes her convoy to Camelot and wants to push her into submitting to his demands.
I am reproducing some of the dialogues from the movie revolving around Prince Malagant. I have highlighted the more nuanced subtitles.
And you would know why the villain struck me this time.
Know now: I am the law!
Opening scene: A loud, fiery, revengeful Malagant: ‘Last night, men from this village killed three of my people. In reprisal, I have destroyed your village. The borderlands have been lawless long enough. Know now: I am the law!’
Queen Guinevere with her advisors: ‘It’s the third village he’s burnt. Does he want to destroy us all?’ | Advisor: ‘He wants us to sign his treaty. He thinks we won’t challenge him.’
Ambush after ambush
King Arthur to his Army chief: ‘Agravaine, what happened?’ | ‘Ambush. sire.’ | ‘Malagant?’ | ‘It has to be.’ | ‘Was Lady Guinevere in danger?’ | ‘We were all in danger, sire. There were two separate forces. Lady Guinevere was in danger.’ | ‘You weren’t prepared for them?’ | ‘So many fell in the first strike. How could we guess they had a second force?’ | Malagant doesn’t care how many men he loses, so long as he wins.’ | ‘I’ll not fail you again, sire.’ | ‘We both know no one is perfect. But I need to know everything.’
During the three-party Round Table discussion between King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and Prince Malagant, where Malagant offers a ‘treaty of friendship’ to Guinevere. She asks: ‘Is burning villages friendship?’ | ‘Yes, Milady… Your land is becoming lawless. Were you not just attacked?’ | ‘You know who attacked me.’ | ‘I made it my business to know. Justice has been done.’ | King Arthur chips in: ‘You know no law above yourself!’
Out of peace and into war
In the same Round Table, Malagant offers King Arthur to divide Lyonesse among the two: ‘Armed forces to be given access to all Lyonesse. Troops to assist in the enforcement of law in all Lyonesse.’
Arthur asks Guinevere: ‘Do you want to sign this?’ | Guinevere: ‘I’ll never sign it.’ | Malagant: ‘She’s very brave … now she’s to be married. Will Camelot protect Lyonesse?’ | Arthur: ‘Is Lyonesse in need of protection?’
Malagant: ‘Come, Arthur. I’m here to settle this business. Lyonesse is too weak to stand alone. Let’s say half each. The lesser gives way to the greater. What nation is greater than Camelot? The land of justice. Come … your hand on it. We’ll all live together as friends.’ | Arthur: ‘You offer me what isn’t yours to give.’
Malagant: ‘You all know me. You know I’m a man of my word. Don’t make an enemy of me. I mean no harm to Camelot.’ | Arthur: ‘You know the law we live by. Where is it written: beyond Camelot live lesser people? People too weak to protect themselves, let them die?’
Malagant: ‘Other people live by other laws. Or does your law rule the world?’ | Arthur: ‘There are laws that enslave men and laws that set them free. Either what we hold to be right and good and true is right and good and true for all mankind under God. Or we’re just a robber tribe.’
Malagant: ‘Your words are talking you out of peace and into war.’ | Arthur: ‘There’s a peace you only find after war. If that battle must come, I will fight it!’
Malagant: ‘The great Arthur… and his great dream. No dream lasts forever.’ Leaves the room.
Upon the Malagant threat, King Arthur asks his army chief: ‘What is the status of the army?’ | ‘Four battalions. Two in reserve. I’ll double the watch. I don’t think Malagant wants war.’ | King Arthur: Arm the reserves. He wants war. He wants Lyonesse as a buffer. He wants Camelot. How soon could he attack?’ | Army chief: ‘His army is five days’ march away.’
What if he asks for more?
In another ambush, Malagant’s men kidnap Lady Guinevere. Army chief: ‘Give me the men.’ | King Arthur: ‘No, that’s exactly what he wants. Take one brigade, now!’ | Army chief: ‘He’ll not harm her. sire. She’s too valuable. He’ll try to trade her first.’ | King Arthur: ‘That’s what I’m afraid of. I’d give my life for her. But what if he asks for more?’
Men don’t want brotherhood. They want leadership!
During Lady Guinevere’s hostage situation, Malagant to his army chief: ‘This is what Arthur doesn’t understand. Men don’t want brotherhood. They want leadership!’
In the same sequence, Lady Guinevere: ‘What do you mean to do with me?’ | Malagant: ‘Keep you till Arthur becomes reasonable.’ | Guinevere: ‘He won’t trade Lyonesse for my life. I’d rather die. Arthur knows that.’ | Malagant: ‘Self-sacrifice is very easy. But sacrificing someone you love puts your convictions to the test. I’m sure Arthur will come round to the merits of compromise.’
Burn it. Burn everything!
In the last scenes of First Knight, when the city gates are kept open for Lancelot’s trial, Malagant makes a surprise invasion of Camelot.
Malagant: ‘Nobody move or Arthur dies! My men control the city gates. On every roof, I have men with burning torches! I have only to lift my arm, and your golden city burns to ashes. I am the law now! You obeyed Arthur. Now, obey me.’
King Arthur: ‘My people are unarmed, Malagant. If it’s me you want, here I am.’
Malagant: ‘Look at him! Look at the great King Arthur of Camelot. He’s a man waking up from a dream. The strong rule the weak! That’s how your God made the world.’
King Arthur: He makes us strong only for a while, so we can help each other.
Malagant: ‘My God makes me strong so I can live my life! Arthur says, “Serve one another.” When will you live your own lives? This is the freedom I bring you! Freedom from Arthur’s tyrannical dream! Freedom from Arthur’s tyrannical law! Freedom from Arthur’s tyrannical God! I want your people to see you kneel before me here. Kneel before me. Or die. Too proud, Arthur? Do you think you serve your people better dead?’
King Arthur: ‘I have no pride left in me.’
Instead of bowing down, Arthur commands his people to fight. Malagant’s men shoot him with crossbows.
Malagant shouts: ‘Burn it. Burn everything!’
As Malagant is killed by Lancelot with King Arthur’s sword on King Arthur’s throne, a civilian says: ‘Camelot will never fall to the tyranny of Malagant!’
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