Oyez, Dudes! The Renaissance Rockz! This film is not for the literal minded, nor for students looking for an easy way to do research on the Renaissance. A Knights Tale is writer/director Brian Helgeland’s attempt to create a sort of early-Renaissance Rocky, only with jousting, not boxing, as the central sport and metaphor. Oh, and the soundtrack is a mix of Early Music and 1970’s pop tunes.
I approached this film with some trepidation. Chivalry from a baby boomer perspective: Would this be a self-indulgent mess, or a worthy
successor to — all kneel — Monty Python and the Holy Grail (cue in trumpets.)
The film begins with a fine bit of whimsy. The scene is a tournament and the people are behaving in proper medieval ways, and then the music morphs into Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” The medieval people do the “wave” and a blend of medieval and 20th century stupid crowd tricks. It’s a wonderfully silly scene and it works. Elsewhere, rock music is used to ironic effect. In the sword fight scene, for example, the use of the song “Taking Care of Business” underlines the fact knighthood, which seems so romantic to us, may have just been another job to our ancestors. Blending rock music with a renaissance storyline is this movie’s big gimmick, and like most gimmicks it grows old fast. Most of the other rock songs don’t add much to the story; they’re just aural non sequiturs.
A Knight’s Tale‘s story line is nothing new. It’s the 14th century and low-born squire William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) that longs to be a knight. Despite the strictures of his society which forbid peasants to become knights and the sure punishment that awaits
if he is discovered, when the opportunity arises to impersonate a knight, William cannot resist. With the help of his fellow squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), and a naked beggar who just happens to be Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), William transforms himself into ‘Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein,’ and becomes a star of the
William/Sir Ulrich’s rival, the super smarmy tournament star Sir Adehmar (Rufus Sewell) suspects that Sir Ulrich is a phony and seeksto destroy him by fair means or foul. Sir Adehmar prefers foul, ofcourse. (To underline the fact that Adehmar is a serious no-goodnick,his armor looks very much like Darth Vader’s, and, at critical pointsin the action, Adehmar’s horse provides that trademarked Darth Vader wheeze.)
Plot complications ensue when Sir Ulrich falls in love with Sir Adehmar’s fiancee, fashion victim Lady Jocelyn (woodenly played by Sossamon). Bored with men winning tournaments for her, Lady Jocelyn asks Ulrich to prove his love by throwing a tournament for her. Meanwhile, Sir Adehmar seeks to unravel Ulrich’s complex pedigree and expose him as a fake, while Katie (Laura Fraser), a female blacksmith with a ripe Scots brogue, has discovered a new way to forge lighter, stronger armor that would give Ulrich the competitive edge if he can only bring himself to wear armor forged by a female!
Though the plot of A Knight’s Tale is formulaic, the acting is inspired. This is an ensemble that knows how to play off of one another. Mark Addy’s subtle body language adds comedic depth to many of the scenes, while Alan Tudyk’s Wat combines the cluelessness of
Spinal Tap‘s Nigel Tufnell with the ferocity of the Three Stooges’ Moe Howard. As Chaucer, Paul Bettany very nearly steals the show. Chaucer is written as a completely outrageous character, a trickster who always plays to the gallery. He is a proto-flack,
gleefully inventing the role of spin-doctor. He forges an impressive pedigree for Ulrich, and creates a “buzz” for the blonde, bland would-be knight. Chaucer struts up and down the playing field like a medieval Mick Jagger, spinning outrageous tales of the saintly
Ulrich, “the defender of Italian virginity.” By the time he reaches the final “Heeeeeeeeere’s Ulrich” at the end of his intro, his 14th Century audience is as hyped-up as a rock concert crowd. More fun ensues as the other heralds try unsuccessfully to mimic Chaucer’s unconventional style.
The film also has some mordant ‘Pythonesque’ humor. William’s epiphanies regarding a man’s ability to better himself always take place with the stocks or a gallows in the background. In a flashback to William’s childhood, for example, William’s father lectures him about how every man can remake himself and “change his stars.” The enthralled young William is perched on the stocks, dangling his feetmin the face of a man being punished for trying to do just that. Scenes like this remind me of Python scenes such as the one in Life of Brian where a crucified Eric Idle urges his comrades in crucifixion to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
A Knight’s Tale has some of the most arresting images I’ve ever seen. In one scene, for example, there is a remarkable composite shot in which the camera swoops down from an aerial view of 14th century London right into the action on the jousting field. The
“London” in the aerial shot had to have been a model, yet I’ve never seen a model so detailed and so alive. The compositing between shots of the model and the live action seemed nothing short of miraculous, it was so perfectly seamless. For the jousting scenes, the crew seems to have refined David Letterman’s monkey thrill cam concept. Instead of a monkey travelling on a wire, they have a camera man travelling on a wire suspended just over the knights heads, so that he can film the charge and impact to give a sort of “knight’s-eye view” of the proceedings. Though the joust scenes were beautifully filmed, there
were a whole lot of them and they were repetitious (there doesn’t seem to be much variety of action in a joust).
The film, which clocks in at 132 minutes, could have used some editing, especially the jousting scenes and the interminable flashbacks to William’s dad endlessly lecturing about
Though it lacks the anarchic brilliance of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Knights Tale has an amusing script, incredible stunts, beautiful camera work, and some inspired acting from an exceptional ensemble of actors. It’s a fun romp that should be taken
about as seriously as an afternoon at RenFest.
(Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2001)