A Knight’s Tale (2001) Retro Review

I’m going to do something I don’t normally do and review this film twice. The first time I do it I will do it with all the good will I’ve borne this movie since I first saw it in 2001. The second time I do it I will be rather harsh, because I am older now and full of bitterness.

1) A Knight’s Tale: Historical Fiction Done Right, and with Style

I have to start this review with an elegy for Heath Ledger. I can think of no other actor in recent times whose death was so surprising and whose presence onscreen is so honestly missed (Brandon Lee comes close but was not afforded the time to establish his career as Ledger had). From his first appearance in the delightful 10 Things I Hate About You to his final performances in The Dark Knight and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Ledger consistently went for roles that offered him something substantial to work with. Ledger brought a charm and vigor to the screen that has not been duplicated in our time and much of A Knight’s Tale works because he is so much fun to watch. He also has a great cast to play off of and a script that ditches many of the trappings of historical fiction in lieu of enjoying the hell out of itself.

A Knight’s Tale is the story of William Thatcher (Ledger), a peasant and attendant to a knight, Sir Ector. All his life he has dreamed of being a knight himself, but the strict caste system of his day prevents that dream from ever becoming reality. However, the sudden death of Sir Ector and the dire need to fill his empty belly pushes him to don the knight’s suit to win a small jousting tournament. His success and skill lead him to “change his stars” and pass himself off as a true knight, winning tournaments and the heart of a princess.

Brian Helgeland, who wrote and directed A Knight’s Tale, took a different approach to historical fiction by shooting it much like an underdog story, with jousting taking the place of any modern sport. At the same time, he used modern music to score the film instead of period pieces, resulting in one of the most enjoyable rock soundtracks of recent memory. He wrote the part of William’s herald – the famous writer Geoffrey Chaucer – specifically for Paul Bettany because he loved hearing the man do monologues. William and his friends speak plainly (and obviously not in middle-English) and the terrific supporting actors Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk are soon joined by Bettany and Laura Fraser (the blacksmith Kate) to become an eclectic modern family.

It is its modernity that saves the film from any missteps in historical accuracy (though it is clear right from the film’s opening that accuracy is not its main concern). Tale does not flout its anachronisms but it does do what any good film should do: Focus on its characters and story. Critics who disliked the film overlooked this fact. There are many action moments to be had, filled with slow motion splatters of wood pulp and horses’ heaving flanks, but what makes it endlessly rewatchable is the banter between Wat and Chaucer, between Roland and Will, the ridiculously earnest proto-feminism of Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) – who may be a princess or a noble lady with an astonishing amount of free time on her hands. This is a story about people and its people are so entertaining to watch that we easily forget all of the conflict arises from what is essentially recreation for knights. Much of that has to do with the fine direction of Mr. Helgeland, but what sport movie would be complete without the odious and unbeatable adversary, played with stunning cunning by Rufus Sewell as Count Adhemar.

It is a movie filled with passionate characters and so much fun it’s impossible to watch without cracking a smile.

2) A Knight’s Tale: A Shameful Fantasy of Woeful Implications

I rewatched this film for the first time in years and was glad to see that much of it still holds up. It is still a well-directed action-comedy (and truth be told, Will’s reunion with his father gets me every time). But if I’m being honest, there are a few points that don’t sit right with me. Before I get into them, I must again acknowledge all that I’ve written above. I recognize that Helgeland was crafting a sport movie in the fifteenth century without intending historical offense. But I must descend into its fictional depths to unburden my soul of these nagging complaints.

Kate v. Jocelyn

The point of this story is to prove that a man can change his stars, fair enough. This means going home with the prom queen at the end of the night. But the lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) is only that, an ideal raised above William’s grasp, an unattainable symbol of status (despite his protest that “she is the arrow,” not the target, which means what exactly I’m not sure). Though her desire to be treated equal to a man marks her as having some “character,” Jocelyn’s feminism is Hollywood feminism: lip service paid to a vague equality that allows her to swoon over the hero with a guiltless conscience. Because her feminism has no foundation and nothing to anchor to, her digs at William’s machismo come off as childish and spoiled and are ultimately revealed as being no more than insurance that she doesn’t “give it away” too easily. This is laudable in its way (especially in an age when women did not so much give as were taken) but I remember even as a child watching this movie and hoping William saw through her traps to the woman that was truly his match.

Kate the blacksmith not only has the superior acting chops of Laura Fraser to back her up, she is also a more compelling character, a self-made woman who manages to support herself in her caste. William had to lie to everybody to get himself to where he wants to be. Kate had a stainglass ceiling to pound on. She’s also headstrong and snarky, but sadly her character is the most short-changed of all the group by the film’s end.

Because this is an action-comedy and not some sort of fight-the-power film, at the end when William is discovered to be a peasant Jocelyn promises him that she will run away with him. He tells her straight up that she does not know what it’s like to live as a peasant, “with the pigs,” but she remains steadfast. For a feel good movie, yes, I suppose this is where we have to go but it is absolutely contrary to Jocelyn’s character. An aristocratic lady who wears the mind-boggling outfits Sossamon sports and plays her man back and forth like a pinball would not last one week in a mud hut. It would have been a sweet twist to see Jocelyn drop the act and tell William sorry I have to go wash my hair and have him see Kate with her hammer and chisel ready to throw down…but to speculate any farther might throw me into the chorus of a Taylor Swift song.

The Other Guys

Here is my biggest issue with the film and the one the film itself strives hardest to ignore. In the beginning, William’s desire to enter tournaments is put to Wat and Roland as something they can do to earn more money. Neither Wat nor Roland, even agreeing to the dangerous gambit, expect it to go further than that. William meanwhile has wanted to be a knight all his life – and to his credit it is an entirely noble desire, one shown to encompass the horse and the armor and the chance to prove himself, not the lording it over his inferiors. But – and this is a big but – once William makes a name for himself, and is literally named Sir William by the Black Prince (James Purefoy), there is no more pretending. Throughout the film William wins glory, horses, and gold, and it is not a stretch to imagine that he will eventually earn land of his own (probably given as dowry for Jocelyn). This means that William begins the story as the equal of his peers: a thatcher, a peasant, with nothing more than the shirt on his back. He ends the film in a completely separate class. His friends, Wat and Roland, get diddly.

Chaucer will be fine because he’s already part of the upper class (and he still has The Canterbury Tales to write). Kate actually benefits from William’s success as his armor will likely bring her more clients. But Wat and Roland are not going to be knighted and the most they can hope for is becoming servants in William’s household. Perhaps with the money they earn from William (and it is implied that they all share the tournament earnings) they can open a tavern or something.

This kind of speculation is always ridiculous to do because after all this is a fictional world that does not exist except between its opening and closing credits. What makes A Knight’s Tale so enjoyable is the true sense of family that the group shares. It is a modern type of family, not one accurate to its times. Is it pretentious when Adhemar has the vision of William’s cadre standing over him saying it’s a brave new world? Yes (very soon that brave new world will slaughter an entire continent of native people on the other side of the Atlantic). And is it a little unfair that Adhemar, an actual veteran, is portrayed as the bad guy when facing a country bumpkin? Well, no, Adhemar’s psychotic, let’s call a spade a spade. But it has always bothered me that William (though he is a charming fellow) gets everything he wants and then some through the love and kindness of his friends, who get left with nothing.

I’d like to point out that when Roland sews a tunic for William to go dancing in, he uses their tent to make it (“green with wooden toggles”). For the longest time I thought he just grabbed a bolt of fabric that must have been lying around the medieval landscape, but this man is such a good friend (and so earnestly wants some loving from Jocelyn’s attendant Christiana) that he cuts a hole in their house to make Will look decent.

The Big Picture

It is fair to say that no man who has friends is poor and Roland, Wat, Geoff, and Kate do not support Will for personal gain. But we must remember that this is not a modern story, it is a medieval one. What makes the film work is that it transposes modern values over the frame of the 1400s, but what makes the history not work is the blatant falsehood of giving William knighthood. This sort of meritocracy was not countenanced in its day, and it raises all sorts of unfortunate implications. If William Thatcher could be a knight, why not another? What’s to stop peasants from revolting across the country, killing their masters and stealing their armor for a chance to earn Prince Edward’s accolade? Why does William get a princess and his own manor while his childhood friends remain in Cheapside all their lives, along with their children and grandchildren who are born into systematic poverty?

For me the irritation is not with the film itself, which I still admire, but the possibility that children or even adults will watch this and form a false impression not only of history but modern times. My issue with most American films is the constantly produced and blatantly false premise that good things happen to good people as long as they believe in something, regardless of their environment (one reason why Brazil is my favorite film, which subverts this so hard you can laugh yourself to tears). The happy ending makes us feel good but it can blind the audience to the reality we’re living in. A Knight’s Tale has two moments that are beautifully set up, the first when William comes home and sees a child cheering him in the crowd and flashes back to the younger version of himself; the second is when his name is announced to the crowd at his final match and Wat tells him, “Your father heard that.” Both moments clinch the heartstrings but the truth is much closer to earlier in the film when William is put in the stocks and the same little boy who was cheering him slaps him on the head.

How much all of this bothers an individual viewer will depend on how much influence they believe films have on our lives. Obviously films are not intended to instruct but like good literature good films can shape our worldview. Accepting A Knight’s Tale at face value means accepting that things will turn out all right in the end, and nevermind the people who didn’t make it to the top.

I know this will seem like a stretch but take Inglorious Basterds for example. No one I know confuses the ending of that film with reality. (SPOILER) Adolf Hitler was not machine gunned in the face a hundred times and left to die in a burning theatre. That ridiculousness actually makes the film more enjoyable because Quentin Tarantino is enjoying his power as writer/director and giving his audience what we want to see. But imagine it’s the year 2113 and World War II is as remote to film buffs as the middle ages is to us. It will be very different for a child who sees Inglorious Basterds then. Perhaps that child will go through its life believing that historically evil is paid unto evil and the massive Russian fatalities on the second front, the division of Berlin, the Nuremberg trials, and Hitler’s ultimate cowardice, will fade away. Again, it’s a stretch to extrapolate this far into the future or to dwell on this movie that makes no pretensions to such importance, but for me A Knight’s Tale represents what is best and worst about our modern addiction to entertainment.

It’s fun, it’s funny, its actors are so very charming and its emotional moments rock you. But it also upholds a strict barrier between what is real and false in history. We like to feel good when we go to the movies – that’s our right as Americans. But sometimes I get the feeling that we’ve all seen one too many rah-rah good-guys-win pictures to be honest with ourselves and the world we’re living in. Or used to live in.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I need to see a man about a dog.

A Knight’s Tale (2001)
PG-13
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Columbia Pictures
132 Minutes

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