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A Knight's Tale

Director: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Heath Ledger, Mark Addy, Rufus Sewell, Paul Bettany, Shannyn Sossamon, Alan Tudyk, Laura Fraser

(Columbia; 2001)

Whop whop whop

A Knight’s Tale is hard not to like. No matter that it’s designed to be just that, with a simple, optimistic, and formulaic premise (young man dares to “change his stars,” to move from his peasant class to the upper class, by virtue of his hard-earned skills, lucky breaks, and an indefatigably loyal crew), a setting in the distant past (14th-century Europe), and an ensemble of amiable, entertaining characters whom you can’t help but wish well. Even its calculatedness seems slightly less annoying than that of other, equally contrived-to-sell movie products… say, the next one coming down the summer-hard-sell pike, whose initials are Pearl Harbor.


What makes A Knight’s Tale work is its front-and-center self-consciousness and sense of ironic good fun. Consider its opening gambit—introducing Golden Boy Heath Ledger in the disguise of a ratty lowlife: he first appears with his hair matted, his outfit filthy, and shreds of cloth stuck up his nose to ward off the stench of a nearby dead body. As it happens, you’re meeting Ledger’s young William and his buddy Roland (the sublime Mark Addy) just as they’re deciding what to do about the fact that their master, a knight, has just expired (or, as Roland puts it, “The spark of his life is smothered in shite”). They’re in mid-tournament, and to forfeit means that they won’t be eating any time soon (reminded that he doesn’t know how to joust, William says, “A detail. The landscape is food”). And so, against the advice of the nervous third in their party, Wat (Alan Tudyk), they prop up William on the knight’s gnarly steed and send him headlong into the tournament’s last jousting run: if he can just stay on the horse, they win a little pile of silver florins.


Guess what, they do win. And then they’re at a crossroads, literally, and must decide whether to continue this charade—they hold this discussion against the backdrop of a couple of dead bodies, one hanged and still dangling, the other in a cage suspended from the same scaffolding. The meaning is clear: life (and death) in this time and place kind of sucks if you’re not of “noble birth.” Still, these enterprising fellows decide to take on the system and make their fortune. From here the movie ramps up quickly: William learns to joust and sword-fight properly in an exhilarating, cleverly designed montage: he’s falling off the horse, drowning in a river, accidentally whomping his friends in the head, all to the tune of WAR’s “Low Rider.”


A month later, they take their act on the road, and along the way pick up a vagrant (Paul Bettany) who can forge those crucial noble-birth papers (“Geoff Chaucer’s the name, writing’s the game”), and who soon joins the group, assuming the all important duty of introducing William at each tournament. The matches are all show biz. And Geoff’s riffs are brilliantly fabricated tales of William’s courageous deeds and monastic meditations: he dazzles the royal crowds with his inventiveness and brash deliveries, directly addressing those fans who watch the whole shebang “without seat cushions”—in short time, William becomes the People’s Hero.


This allusion to the WWF is not incidental. A Knight’s Tale is all about entertainment, especially the trials and traumas that come with celebrity when it’s bequeathed on someone from a class and culture outside Hollywood (or other) royalty. Celebrity here is the function of an American Dreamy saga: William has an individual talent and rock-steady perseverance. Jousting stands in for wrestling or basket-balling, or the pop music game (imagine William as a Backstreet Boy or a Ruff Ryder—or better, don’t).


The film underlines this collapse of celebrity, sports, and class in its slick use of a “classic rock” soundtrack: these days, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” has less to do with that fabulously outrageous band than with keeping fans roused at football games. Knight’s Tale lays all these familiar tracks on thick, mostly for sports fans (and no, thank goodness—there’s no Baha Men). The slo-mo jousting and crowd’s arm-pumping scenes are all about getting you roused. Perversely and no doubt purposely, the most inventive permutation of the soundtrack comes during a non-sporting event—William and his fair maiden, the Princess Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) dance with one another at a post-game fete. William, being a nobody, doesn’t have a clue how to dance, but after a few tentative steps, Jocelyn rescues him, and the properly old-sounding music gives way to the joyous beat of Bowie’s “Golden Years”: “I’ll stick with you baby, for a thousand years / Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years, gold / Golden years, gold, whop whop whop / Come get up, my baby.” The bodies gyrating, the music booming: young love has never sounded or looked so bizarre.


The romance with Jocelyn gives the movie a means to comment on the unfairness of a rigid class system. Even aside from the fact that he’s a talented knight who should be allowed to compete with all the others, William’s a charming husband-to-be, and Jocelyn adopt him almost immediately. But it’s soon clear that A Knight’s Tale is about as insightful as Titanic when it comes to class analysis. William and his team (which comes to include Kate, a girl blacksmith, played by Titus‘s fabulous Laura Fraser) don’t want to change the distribution of wealth; they just want to share the privileges they see the noble-folks enjoying. They’re not about to give their wealth away or fight for peasants’ rights, just William’s (the team members remain strictly peasant-ish, just happy to carry their buddy’s coat of arms in parades and make enough cash to go drinking at night).


The most strident obstacle to William’s triumphant ascension to marriageable status, the most insistent opponent is one Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), who commands an army that’s out slaughtering enemies when he’s not trying to knock William off his horse. He also rides a huge black horse, wears black armor, and makes snide remarks to embarrass William in front of Jocelyn, whom he is “negotiating” to wed. When William and Jocelyn become an obvious item, Adhemar makes it his personal mission to beat down the upstart and reaffirm his own prowess: he’s fond of telling William that he’s been “measured” and “found wanting,” all caught up in a stereotypical guy’s concern with size and competition, and not a little reminiscent of the plot executed with considerably more self-congratulatory seriousness by Gladiator. By comparison, A Knight’s Tale is very light on its feet.


And yet, A Knight’s Tale is also stuck in a few too many cliches. While it gestures toward breaking out of standard gender dynamics, it never quite manages to do so. While Kate and Jocelyn are surely feisty girls, they serve primarily as support and confirmation of William’s well-earned celebrity. Kate is a guys’ girl, with undeniable hammer-and-anvil skills and a serious capacity to keep up with her heavy-drinking mates at the pub, as well as a fierce allegiance to her boy Heath… I mean, William. Meantime, Jocelyn is ravishing, costumed in Marco Socti’s strange concoctions, simultaneously stylish and abstract, old-school and so mod-erne! And yes, Jocelyn is that consummately desirable schizzy creature, a breathtakingly fair maiden one moment, then a willful and petulant girl in need of taming.


She apparently lives apart from her parents (though her father is mentioned in dialogue), traveling from tournament to tournament with only a submissive servant girl in whom she confides her desires and whom she sends on errands. Maybe that latchkey independence explains her selfishness, though the cause is beside the point, which seems to be to demonstrate William’s quite brilliant patience and tenacity. During a spat with her true love (for of course, they recognize one another at first sight), Jocelyn calls William “a silly boy with a horse and a stick,” and then she turns around and asks him to lose a match to prove his love for her. Though he initially resists such ridiculousness (he does have a pit crew to support, remember?), he gives in to his “heart,” and tries to lose, because he is such a sensitive guy. This effort results in his severe battering by opponents’ lances, rendered as a montage to underline the ferocity of the assault on his pretty body, even if it is encased in armor. Perhaps needless to say, some viewers come away thinking Fair Jocelyn is a selfish twit for demanding such a thing.


William is a damn good sport, however, and his willingness to go along is really what carries the film. In the end, everyone’s happy to see him triumph over the constricting archaic forces of fate determined by class. On his triumph over Adhemar (and believe me, I’m giving nothing away by mentioning it), William, announces, “Welcome to the New World.” And because he’s such a movie star, it hardly seems to matter that this world looks just like the old one.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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