A Knight’s Tale was the kind of movie your high school friends dragged you to on some muggy May evening, the kind of film of which you could predict every single story beat a good 10 minutes before it happened. This is how I experienced it. For some reason, though, I haven’t forgotten it in the 20 years since it came out, even down to incidental lines of dialogue. By virtue of its cast—which over the past two decades have become major stars—it has become an odd entry in the filmography of some highly visible actors. But it’s the beautifully ridiculous trappings of it, the manic love it evinces for some of the fustiest literary history you napped through in AP English, that makes it a bemusing curiosity.
This is true even setting aside the fact you will see a buck-ass naked Paul Bettany in it.
Young William (Heath Ledger) is the low-born squire of an old knight who, as we start the story, has unceremoniously died. He was not merely William’s mentor, but his meal ticket. With the help of fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy, a character actor recognizable in numerous other roles that include Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones) and Wat (all-purpose goofball Alan Tudyk), William dons their deceased liege’s armor and manages to eke out a victory in the jousting tourney. Against the better judgment of his fellows, William convinces them all to help him train to compete in other tournaments. The catch is that as a peasant, William isn’t technically allowed to compete, so they’ll need to lie about his parentage.
Fortunately for William, the means to do so literally wanders by on the road to the next tournament, in the glorious, nude form of Paul Bettany, who introduces himself as a little-known poet and writer by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer has literally lost his shirt gambling, but offers William and his band his expertise in bullshitting. With his noble lineage properly forged, William (having adopted the totally believable moniker of Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland) enters the tournament and acquits himself pretty well for a guy with raggedy armor and not much experience.
While tilting at his foes, William becomes enamored of the young Jocelyn (Shannon Sossamon) and makes an enemy of the Count Adhemar (a sneering Rufus Sewell). The film follows William’s quest to knock big dudes off their horses real good so as to impress Jocelyn and humble Adhemar. Nothing about the plot is important, anymore than anything about the plot of Dodgeball is. What is important is how the movie rejects everything that would have made this another too-serious period piece.
There are two things that will determine whether you dig A Knight’s Tale or can’t get on board with it, and they are the soundtrack and Jocelyn’s wardrobe. Writer-director Brian Helgeland said he toyed with the idea of a jousting movie after having read about how it was the medieval equivalent of today’s sports, but also intended the movie to be about things like youth and questioning authority. Accordingly, Helgeland fixed on stadium rock for the movie’s soundtrack, a choice that initially seems baffling until, as people pointed out when the film came out in 2001, you consider that electric guitars are just as anachronistic as a full orchestra would be in 14th century France (or, say, 2nd century Rome).
Once you accept that a bunch of 14th century French peasants diegetically singing “We Will Rock You” makes about as much sense as Hans Zimmer’s usual orchestral work, you will find yourself able to enjoy the proceedings with a clearer head. While you’re at it, accept that the movie is not a period piece but a sports underdog story with period trappings intended to infuriate your history teacher. Jocelyn’s wardrobe, accordingly, becomes more anachronistic with each scene, as she is introduced in a virginal white robe that almost looks like it maybe might be plausible if not accurate and then, scene by scene, slowly starts wearing stuff like bright purple highlights and see-through mesh.
Those kinds of anachronisms seem tailored to dare the audience to cry foul (Tudyk at one point jeeringly calls a Frenchman “Quasimodo,” four whole centuries before Victor Hugo ever wrote a word), but there’s also an earnest enthusiasm about the historical period. Paul Bettany’s Chaucer makes some sly references to The Canterbury Tales throughout the movie that you might miss if you blink, and the appearance of Edward the Black Prince (James Purefoy) grounds the story to a specific part of the Hundred Years’ War. It’s historical record that Purefoy’s character actually did participate in jousting tournaments, even.
Other little details also stand out: At one point Adhemar sneers at William’s armor, making fun of the fact that he wields a shield. While I’m not sure if the armor everybody’s wearing is accurate, that taunt is at least in the right spirit: By that time in history, plate armor was so well-made that knights didn’t really bother with shields anymore. When William gets an upgrade (provided to him by a female blacksmith played by another character actor you know, Laura Fraser of Breaking Bad fame), he loses the shield.
A Knight’s Tale juggles all of this with a cast far more capable than the story deserves, and it all adds up to a lot of fun. At one point, ordered by Jocelyn to prove his love by eating shit on the field, William is asked what he’s doing sitting on his horse and allowing his opponents to mow him down. “Losing,” Ledger intones with perfect dejection, right before getting walloped by a lance.
There’s every possibility you’ll find yourself curious about this one because you just watched Bettany discuss the Ship of Theseus with himself, or because you wonder what else Alan Tudyk was up to before he was Star Wars’ driest killer droid, or because you find yourself again lamenting the loss of Ledger in his prime. You’ll find that while they’re all a hoot and a half to see here, the story also slows down for a little while to fill in William’s backstory, setting the film up for his eventual success story. It pays off in ways that are gentle and affecting and sincere, without derailing anything.
Time and again, Sewell repeats to Ledger the formulaic insult, “You have been weighed. You have been measured. And you have been found wanting.” It is not a spoiler, in this kind of movie, to tell you that Sewell eats dirt by the end, or that A Knight’s Tale is not at all found wanting after aging a couple decades.
Kenneth Lowe is blonde, he’s pissed, he’ll see you in the list, Lichtenstein!! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.