A Knight’s Tale (2001)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in All Play and No Work | 0 comments


Disclaimer: The language is a bit cheeky at times, as is Chaucer’s wardrobe.

Who’s to say that jousting and sword fighting weren’t considered spectator sports in the 15th century? Maybe both royalty and peasants flocked to their local arena to cheer on their favorite competitors. Maybe workers walked up and down rows selling cat meat or hot wine at the events. Maybe, in the event that someone’s helmet flew off, audience members fought to catch it like a foul ball. And maybe, just maybe, they already knew how to do “The Wave” and pound along with Queen’s We Will Rock You. Such are the delightful claims in A Knight’s Tale, a strange period piece modernized with a sports movie plot and 70s rock soundtrack that also stays loyal to the romantic comedy genre.

William Thatcher (Heath Ledger), Knight2our hero, begins as a mere squire for an over-the-hill champion, who just kicked the bucket minutes before a final tournament match. Not wanting to throw away the prize money, fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) suit William up in the dead man’s armor. “I’ve waited my whole life for this moment,” William says. After they win, they reluctantly decide to try again, despite the risk of getting caught and likely hanged because competitors must be of noble birth. So the dreadlock-wearing and filthy prole begins training and aspires to de-throne a few bourgeoisies. There’s one problem. Some tournaments require William to prove four generations of his lineage. Enter Chaucer (Paul Bettany), a writer who has no clothes because he’s resigned to a life of poverty and trudging, or so he says. When Chaucer first meets the squires, William introduces himself as Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland. Chaucer, seeing right through their front, responds, “I’m Richard the Lionheart, pleased to meet you.” He does, however, help draft a fake proof of lineage for William in exchange for clothes and food.

As William’s prestige grows after winning tournaments, we get to know a little more about all of the characters involved. Via flashbacks we see William’s father turning the boy over to a knight in hopes of giving him a better life. The awkward Wat and fatherly Roland are faithful friends and cohorts, acting as both coaches and cheerleaders from the sidelines. Chaucer becomes William’s eccentric promoter, belting out limericks and hyperbole before each bout. The other minor character in William’s entourage is Kate (Laura Fraser), a female blacksmith who models his trendy armor, complete with Nike swooshes.

The love story begins, like so many others, at first sight. William spots Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon in her screen debut), and goes to great lengths to woo her. He doesn’t quite have a way with words, however, and mostly confides in Chaucer to draft poetry such as, “Perhaps angels have no names, only beautiful faces.” He has an adversary, in both love and the joust, with Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). “Beautiful, isn’t she? A real thoroughbred trophy,” he says to William.

“You speak of her as if she is a target,” William retorts.

“Isn’t she?”

“No,” he says confidently, “she is the arrow.”

Adhemar, a fierce champion with a fist-tipped lance to prove it, has never been unhorsed. William will get two stabs at beating the cocky champion, one of which comes in the “Big Game” sequence at the world championship in London in front of his girl, father, and fellow proles. Of all the wonderful moments in this exciting and fun film, my favorite comes when Adhemar asks William to teach everyone a dance from his country. He, of course, concocts one in the most winning of fashions to David Bowie’s Golden Years. The hilariously out-of-place soundtrack also includes Bachman-Turner Overdrive, AC/DC, and, the most cliché of all sports movie songs, Queen’s We Are the Champions.

It’s worth noting that the first story in Chaucer’s most famous book, The Canterbury Tales, is called “The Knight’s Tale.” And the movie does, I suppose, have certain elements of the story, including the characters Simon the Summoner and Peter, as well as a reference to the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere. The rest of the Brian Helgeland-written and -directed movie, let’s just say, is a very loose adaptation of the text.

Of all the wonderful portrayals in the film,  Ledger’s shines most. Though it’s far from his best, A Knight’s Tale marked the end of his teenage sex symbol roles and signaled what was to come from a fierce, determined, and inspired actor. After his death, reports mentioned him in a list with River Phoenix and James Dean, who likewise died en route to their career’s peak. The comparison is likewise suitable in the fact that all three could have, if their fates changed, butted heads with Marlon Brando to vie for the title of greatest actor in the history of cinema. Each of them brought personal experience to their roles, showing insight, pain, and agony like never before. Don’t make the mistake of labeling them mere actors. Like most great actors, Ledger was among a breed of reactors. Together, Dean and Brando reinvented screen acting for the generations to come. I’d like to think Phoenix and Ledger were about to do the same. But, sadly, we never had the chance to see where they planned to take it.

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