Unlike the moribund western and the sword-and-sandals Roman epic, recently revived by Gladiator, the medieval romance has been constantly with us ever since Herbert Beerbohm Tree filmed scenes from his stage production of Shakespeare's King John in There have been some serious, even solemn, examples of the genre - John Boorman's Excalibur, Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois and Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac.
But they've usually been somewhat tongue-in-cheek, though Douglas Fairbanks thought Chaplin was taking things a little too far when he asked if he could borrow the Nottingham Castle built for Fairbanks's Robin Hood (in its day the biggest set in Hollywood) so that the gigantic drawbridge could be lowered and Charlie's tramp emerge to put out the cat and take in the milk. Anachronism, intentional and unintentional, has invariably been part of this sub-species of the swashbuckling genre and, indeed, it is central to the numerous screen versions of Mark Twain's classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Relatively few of these medieval swashbucklers have been truly debunking in their treatment of these legends of derring-do and chivalric romance (Dick Lester's realistic Robin and Marian is probably the most grimly realistic) and writer-producer-director Brian Helgeland aims at balancing the inspiringly romantic and the deflationary comic. Helgeland has previously been associated with gritty urban thrillers such as L.A. Confidential (which he co-scripted) and Payback (which he directed), but in every male adult there lurks the spirit of a little boy who once wielded a sword or longbow in the backyard and imagined himself earning the favours of Maid Marian.
Helgeland's 'timeless' setting, as the presence of both the Black Prince and Geoffrey Chaucer suggests, is the England and France of the fourteenth century. The English hero is the lowborn William Thatcher (handsome Heath Ledger) whose father, a genuine thatcher rather than a Lincolnshire shopkeeper, has apprenticed him to an itinerant knight as a squire.
The knight spends his time going the rounds of the French tournaments. Then, when he dies halfway through a jousting contest, the quixotic William proposes to his fellow servants, the portly Sancho Panza figure Roland (Mark Addy) and the hot-tempered redhead Wat (Alan Tudyk) that he stand in for their dead master. Initially, he hides behind his mask, because the chivalric code denies him the right to indulge in knightly combat. This defect is rectified by a silver-tongued poet they meet on the road, naked because he's lost his shirt gambling. He turns out to be Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) - 'Chaucer's the name, writing's the game' - who fakes patents of nobility for William and becomes his PR spokesman. A fifth member joins the group, a spirited Scot called Kate (Laura Fraser), a blacksmith making the latest in fashionable armour, which she signs with the Nike logo.
Opposing this sextet is the sneering Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), a brilliant fighter and enemy of democracy who suspects William of being an imposter and competes with him for the love of the mysterious tournament groupie, Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon). She sports the only American accent in medieval France and her part is woefully underwritten. Fortunately, the Black Prince, travelling in disguise, recognises in William a natural aristocrat and their relationship is much the same as that between Robin Hood and Richard the Lion-Heart in the various Robin Hood films.
The anachronisms do not come as thick and fast as I'd been led to believe, and are most notable in the music - the first session of jousting is preceded by the crowd chanting Queen's 'We Will Rock You' and the final credits are accompanied by Queen's 'We Are the Champions'. The film is never as funny as the magnificent Danny Kaye comedy The Court Jester or as exhilarating as the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood, and Helgeland has trouble ringing effective changes on the simple jousting routine of two men riding at each other with enormous, unwieldy lances. But it's an enjoyable romp and Heath Ledger is a likeably vulnerable hero and Mark Addy a good-natured realistic foil.
The French comedy, Les Visiteurs, in which Jean Reno plays a medieval warrior transported to present-day France, ends with a helmeted knight on a Languedoc hillside saluting the few people left in the cinema and the director signing off with 'Farewell to all credit lovers'. Audiences who sit through the final credits of A Knight's Tale are rewarded by William's entourage (Chaucer included) indulging in a farting contest, which was presumably as popular a pursuit in the fourteenth century as jousting, and open to both sexes.
In A Knight’s Tale, Aussie heartthrob Heath Ledger is William Thatcher, a squire with big dreams who masquerades as a nobleman so that he can join the joust. Aided by endearing comic sidekicks who serve as a lance-handling pit crew, he goes on a winning streak, woos a fair maiden and does battle with a dastardly black knight. But Camelot it ain’t. This breezy, jocular film offers a fresh twist on classic knights-in-shining-armor stories when modern slang and classic rock playfully sneak up on the pious prose of the period and give it a wedgie. Peasants and royalty stomp, clap and sing Queen’s "We Will Rock You." At a dance, lyre and harpsichord morph into David Bowie’s "Golden Years." Arena rock meets 14th century Europe in this offbeat marriage of Rocky, Grease and Robin Hood.
positive elements: It’s a good-hearted flick full of likable characters, especially the ragtag band of friends willing to humbly support William’s ambitions. They teach him to joust. They teach him to dance. They sew clothes for him, make armor for him and collaborate on a romantic letter of apology for him. That camaraderie gives this jelly donut of a movie its sweet center. The idea that people can rise above social status and achieve great things also takes the fore. William allows an opponent to lose in a dignified manner. Evil Count Adhemar is merciless, in sharp contrast to the sportsmanship and compassion displayed by William (they vie for the affections of Jocelyn, who notices this disparity in character and gives her heart to William—the true "noble" man). William and his friends adopt into their clique a female blacksmith shunned by the men in her profession, and proceed to treat her with respect. Although pal Chaucer is humorously portrayed as a chronic gambler, his misfortune and self-proclaimed addiction clearly show the down side. When William eventually reunites with his aging father, their loving commitment to each other makes these peasants seem richer than the finest-dressed lord (he proudly chooses to joust under his family name in the climactic contest). Nobility is not a birthright, but a matter of the heart.
Even so, the best moment in A Knight’s Tale could prove to be the year’s best moment in film, period. [Spoiler Warning] Just before his final showdown against Count Adhemar, William’s true identity comes to light. The jig is up. He receives warning that he has been disqualified from the tournament and will surely be arrested. His friends tell him to hightail it into the woods. Even Jocelyn promises to escape along with him. William refuses. "I will not run!," he shouts, willing to accept responsibility for his actions and endure public disgrace in the name of honor. Wait, it gets better! Placed in a pillory, William is scorned and condemned by angry townspeople. All is hopeless. That is until the heir to the throne of England strides up. The prince, who had been shown mercy earlier in the film by William, does what only a man of his virtue and authority could do. He pardons William. Not only is the young man released, but he is given a title of nobility contestable by no man. It is a fantastic, human illustration of mankind’s redemption by Jesus Christ. Unable to escape sin, we all face judgment and humiliation at the hand of our accuser (Satan). There is absolutely no escape apart from a royal pardon by the only person with the authority to release us and call us holy—Jesus. Despite some disappointing content (below), this film offers mature viewers an outstanding vehicle for discussing the Gospel with unsaved friends.
spiritual content: While not overtly spiritual, a pivotal scene models Matthew and demonstrates God’s redemptive love for humanity. Several casual mentions of Christ are reverent. At one point, the camera strolls past a man on the side of the road preaching about Peter’s denial of Jesus. Sadly, a few other characters—ignoble foils—model a faith steeped in piety or oppression. The line, "If a man believes enough, he can change the stars" gives a subtle nod to astrological predestination.
sexual content: Nothing explicit, though a conversation amongst William’s friends deals with the beauty of a Jocelyn’s breasts (which are exposed just a little too much in one outfit). Prolonged shots of Chaucer’s bare, filthy backside aren’t sexualized, but neither are they necessary (gambling often results in his losing his shirt and shoes and pants). The film’s most disappointing element actually appears in the TV commercial—an implied night of passion between William and Jocelyn (she enters his bedchamber, they kiss and the scene fades). Also, while most of the modern music grafted into this minute renaissance festival won’t offend, the song chosen to usher in the end credits will: AC/DC’s bawdy anthem "You Shook Me All Night Long."
violent content: Frequent violence is limited to jousting, fistfights and bloodless swordplay.
crude or profane language: Fewer than 10 profanities mar the dialogue, including about four variations on the s-word.
drug and alcohol content: Some beer and wine, but no drunkenness.
conclusion: Commenting on the film’s quirky clash of pop cultures, Brian Helgeland told Entertainment Weekly, "When we tested it, most people dug it, but the people that didn’t like it really didn’t like it." What’s likely to turn off discerning viewers more than those clashing cultures are several unfortunate moments that have the impact of a lance’s glancing blow to the shoulder—not enough to knock you off the horse, but still wince-worthy and regrettable. On the other hand, what’s good here is very good—a cheery, clever romp with lots to discuss.