After they had got rid of the governess, Sir Ector said, "After all, damn it all, we can’t have the boys runnin’ about all day like hooligans, after all, can we, damn it all? Ought to be havin’ a first-rate eddication, at their age. When I was their age I was doin’ all this Latin and stuff at five o’clock every mornin’. Happiest time of my life. Pass the port."
"Couldn’t send them to Eton, I suppose?" inquired Sir Grummore cautiously. "Long way and all that, we know."
It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not Port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel. —T. H. White, The Once and Future King
Unlike The Once and Future King, T. H. White’s great retelling of Malory’s Mort D’Arthur, Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale is no masterpiece; but it operates on a similar logic. White had Sir Ector and Sir Grummore sitting about drinking port and talking about Eton; and Helgeland has spectators in the stands at a jousting tournament pounding the bleachers to the driving rhythm of Queen’s We Will Rock You, and even chanting the lyrics. Of course medieval peasants couldn’t really have known the lyrics to the 70s rock anthem — but you get the point.
A Knight’s Tale is the kind of silly feel-good popcorn movie, like Independence Day or the 1999 The Mummy, that film critics generally enjoy ripping apart, and mainstream audiences generally just enjoy.
I am a film critic. Not only that, I also happen to have a more than passing interest in real medieval and Arthurian literature. Botched medieval adventures, like First Knight and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, fill me with all the raw contempt that a typical science nerd feels for Independence Day or an Egyptology buff for The Mummy.
And yet, improbably, I enjoyed A Knight’s Tale. Here’s a movie that commits innumerable blunders: It’s too long; its hero (The Patriot’s Heath Ledger) is upstaged by a flamboyant sidekick (Paul Bettany) with better name recognition ("Chaucer" ring a bell?); the love-interest (Shannyn Sossamon) is less appealing than the female sidekick (Laura Fraser); the characters act out of character at the convenience of the plot (notably when the hero picks a fight with his lady-fair for absolutely no good reason, then immediately goes about trying to woo her back); and the story is an unbroken string of clichés and anachronisms, not all of which can be dismissed as easily as the rock soundtrack or White’s port.
There, I’ve done my critical duty and warned you about the movie’s flaws. I am therefore now free to recommend it anyway.
Here’s a movie with a winning gung-ho enthusiasm, confidence, and will to entertain, that comes lumbering at you like Ledger on horseback, ill-fitting armor at all. It’s funny, especially when Paul Bettany as a rather dissolute Chaucer struts his stuff at tournaments in long-winded, crowd-pleasing, wholly improvised introductions of the hero. The jousting sequences are repetitive and hardly suspenseful, but the thundering horses and glinting armor are fun to watch in slow-motion, and lances shatter spectacularly into countless flying splinters. And Heath Ledger, with his determined scowl, righteously set jaw, and artfully touseled blond locks, is engaging as William, a squire impersonating a dead knight at tournaments, longing to be a knight himself.
Granted, William’s none too bright; and the movie’s the same way. It’s anyone’s guess what he sees in Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), a high-born and lovely but rather vacuous young lady whose problem in life, poor thing, is that all the knights tell her they want to win tournaments in her honor, when of course it’s their own honor they’re thinking of.
What’s she got that Kate (Laura Fraser), William’s unlikely female armorer, hasn’t got? Nobility, I guess. Isn’t it rather odd that neither William nor the movie ever even considers the possibility of Kate as a viable love-interest for William, especially given that the whole point of William’s journey and of the film as a whole is equality and how class doesn’t matter? It’s one thing, apparently, for a peasant boy to aspire to knighthood, but quite another for that aspiring knight to become romantically entangled with a peasant blacksmith girl.
In casting a hunky Australian in the role of a spectator-sport combatant who rises to the top, A Knight’s Tale clearly hopes to capitalize on the success of last year’s Gladiator. Another similiarity between the two pictures: the almost total absence of Christian references. The nearest Gladiator came to acknowledging the existence of Christianity was a deleted scene (available in the DVD) of presumed Christians being fed to the lions. In A Knight’s Tale, when William bumbles into a church (on horseback), he doesn’t even know how to use the holy-water stoup; and before he can figure it out he’s hurried out of the church by a shrill clergyman, who then proceeds to offer his sympathies to Jocelyn on the "curse" of her beauty, urging her to pray that years should come quickly upon her and her beauty soon fade (Jocelyn pretends to agree, but is clearly mocking the priest). This scene should have been deleted, and the one in Gladiator left in.
Still, for all this Tale’s shortcomings, I rooted for William. Somehow the movie’s charm and innocence got to me. And there’s something refreshing about an action film in which the hero’s grievance against the villain (Rufus Sewell) seeks no further satisfaction than knocking him flat on his back.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.