Written, Produced and Directed by Brian Helgeland
William Thatcher learned about life from the school of hard knocks – literally – as from childhood he was taken from his father John (a thatcher, funnily enough) to be a practice sparring partner for Sir Ector. Getting hit by big pointy sticks is a serious business, one that can only be engaged in on a professional level by those of excellent pedigree and verifiable lineage. However when the good knight shuffles off his mortal coil just prior to a simple jousting contest conclusion, William assumes the mantle of his departed boss and wins his first bout the only way he knows how – by being hit and still remaining alive. Enflamed with the success offered by having a pole smashed in your face he and his two companions create an alter ego for the peasant – that of Sir Ulric von Liechtenstein. A chance encounter with a naked Geoffrey Chaucer provides the requisite papers to pass off as nobility and enter the numerous European competitions. Ulric/William proves adept at winning all his contests except when facing the devious Count Adhemar, whose departure from competition to fight on the front leaves revenge for William hanging in the air. To make matters worse Adhemar has designs on the fair maid Joyeline, a noble beauty above the aspirations of an incognito peasant like William, despite their obvious attraction, and is determined to humiliate his now bitter enemy.
It may sound like a work from Chaucer, it may even feature Chaucer but Chaucer it most definitely ain’t.
A Knight’s TaleRight at the start of A Knight’s Tale our hero William, in the mantle of his recently deceased sire Sir Ector, enters his first joust. The medieval crowd are being hyped up by the blaring of Queen’s We Will Rock You (featuring Robbie Williams), food salesmen and the pre-fight banter of the jousters’ promoters. However despite the deliberate anachronisms and the attempts at making this more appropriate for a modern audience this is actually a fairly old-fashioned kind of film. After the initial amusement of contemporary music in an undefined middle age (it’s all a bit vague on this front) it boils down to the simple story of working class boy rising through the ranks to woo the maiden, collecting a band of oddball friends and confronting the arrogant aristocrat. Of course the status quo isn’t over-ridden, this is wholesome escapist fantasy without a single subversive weapon in its armoury, but ultimately that’s the point. What A Knight’s Tale has in its favour is that it never gets too bogged down in its own self-worthiness. In many respects this is like Gladiator but, you know, for kids – sure it lacks Joacquin Phoenix and an army full of pathos – but the point of William’s character is that he never was nobility, he has to rise up, not rise back up.
Key to the film is, of course, the jousting. In many ways this is the ideal sport for the film because the rules are simple and the action is violent but always armoured. Thus the sloshing blood of Gladiator is replaced here by the shattering of wood on armour, just as effective but so much more PG-friendly. Prior to the bouts the audience are roused by the jousters’ entourage, it comes as no surprise that having Geoffrey Chaucer on your side is a huge help… or hindrance. This is all fine and dandy; there’s the romance, the mistaken identities, the comedy, a bit of very mild moralising (no heavy handed BIG STATEMENTS here) and attempts to evoke the effortless feel-good nature of early Hollywood romps (despite the insistence that no-one wears hose you still get the feeling they wanted to be making Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)).
Despite this A Knight’s Tale fails on one major point – its length. Almost in an attempt to win over the WWF crowd, the film-makers seem to have taken the ‘more is better’ approach which, while not dragging out any particular scene, hampers the film. Coming in seriously at the wrong side of two hours, the film’s middle section seems decidedly flabby as we re-establish the love affair, go through more competitions and basically re-emphasise everything we already know. Again the problem isn’t individual scenes per se (presumably this is why they weren’t cut) but they are better suited to DVD where they could be multi-threaded at the viewer’s discretion. This is especially galling as the setting up of the film’s entire premise is as succinct as you could want – barely five minutes (including titles) have passed and you are clued into a good 60% of the film.
A Knight’s Tale is popcorn fun for kids of all ages and taken as anything else will only lead to bitter disappoint. It may be no more than diverting but at least it’s never dull.