A Knight's Tale
directed by Brian Helgeland
(Columbia, 2001)

A Knight's Tale appears to be very deliberately intended to get youngsters and teenagers interested in medieval history by incorporating rock 'n' roll music into its score, by touting endorsements by Rolling Stone magazine, by casting attractive young performers in the lead roles and by some judicious use of anachronistic behavior. Will these strategies work? I hope so, for this movie offers great fun and visual dazzle by being a sort of Chariots of Fire set in 14th-century England and France.

The story follows a young peasant who dreams of defying the taboo prohibiting anyone not of the nobility from competing in the knightly jousting tournaments and how he achieves this goal through a combination of luck, determination and the help of friends who care for him, believe in him and wish to share the wealth of the winnings. Heath Ledger plays William Thatcher, a Cheapsider son of a common laborer whose forged noble identity as Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein enables him to participate in jousting -- a sport which this film depicts as the equivalent of contemporary X-treme sports complete with a circuit of various competitions (held in several French locations) as one advances towards the "World Championships" in London.

The protagonist enjoys the assistance of sympathetic, appealing, youthful and funny characters, including plump Roland (Mark Addy) and flaming-haired, lanky Wat (Alan Tudyk) as his squires. Thatcher acquires as his herald an unknown, glib and witty writer named Geoff Chaucer (Paul Bettany) -- and yes, it's THAT Chaucer! Before long, a delightful "proto-feminist" tough gal blacksmith and armorer Kate (Laura Fraser), whose existence the script rationalizes credibly, joins the crew.

This earnest fivesome work their way from one competition to the next with "Sir Ulrich" rapidly advancing as he defeats one competitor after another. But the hero soon must face a ruthless antagonist, the villainous Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), who craves the championship and the gorgeous and feisty highborn Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) -- and he'll stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Despite the predictability of the ultimate outcome of the story, the plot manages to offer some interesting and surprising twists along the way, with plenty of humor (some of it witty dialogue, some of it anachronistic, playing to an outrageous degree, on the idea of jousting as having the medieval equivalent of modern competitive sports culture and all that implies). A Knight's Tale also offers the expected plethora of exciting, colorful and spectacular jousting scenes, staged and photographed to up the ante each time so that the audience remains enthralled throughout, right up until the satisfying ending.

Will A Knight's Tale entice young people into reading Chaucer and boning up on medieval history (perhaps by reading such popular accounts as Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror)? One hopes so, but even if such a salutary effect fails to occur, the movie provides plenty of entertainment with its fine performers; dazzling sets, costumes and armor; spectacular CGI aerial shots of recreated 14th-century Paris and London; lively jousts and humorous bits (much of it satisfyingly character driven). More problematic aspects are the sometimes too contemporary patterns of speech in the dialogue and the score by Carter Burwell, whose lovely music, evocative of the period, gets all too frequently interrupted by the rock 'n' roll songs ("We Will Rock You," "We Are the Champions," "The Boys are Back in Town," etc.). These melodic intrusions, despite the sports or mood appropriateness of their lyrics, felt jarring to me, but might not bother younger viewers at all. Any members of the Society for Creative Anachronisms and/or attendees of medieval/Renaissance festivals will be sure to be most appreciative of A Knight's Tale, yet this film will certainly provide a colorful, adventurous (spiced with romantic elements) couple of hours fun for all comers.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.