The critical reception to 2001’s A Knight’s Tale is full of terrible, lazy takes deriding it as mind-numbing trash. They’re full of disdain for low culture that places the film’s detractors squarely on the side of the its villains, a comparison that seems utterly lost on the whole pompous lot. The presumed audience of the film – teenagers – gets as much scorn as the film itself. The reviewers then scorn the film all the more in turn for its “pandering”. There are tons of complaints about its anachronistic 70s rock soundtrack, though some of the same reviewers, like Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, would go on to name Moulin Rouge one of the best films of the year.
Admittedly, A Knight’s Tale isn’t as good as Moulin Rouge: this isn’t one of those articles where I try to convince you a largely dismissed piece of trash is actually a masterpiece. A Knight’s Tale is a pretty good popcorn flick, well-cast and competently made, with a straightforward plot and some good set-pieces. Reviewers were fond of referring to it as a “Middle Ages Rocky” or “Rocky on horseback” with exactly the tedious predictability they accuse its plot of epitomising, which is weird for two reasons: first, because Rocky is a gritty minimalist drama, and second, because, somehow, the comparison never made them consider that A Knight’s Tale, much like Rocky, is a film about class.
Will Thatcher (Heath Ledger) is the squire of an aging knight who abruptly dies, leaving Will and the knight’s other servants, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), destitute. Will is a working-class boy trying to “change his stars”, so he takes the knight’s armour and assumes the identity of Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein, from Gelderland, to compete for gold as a jouster and duellist with the help of forged identity papers courtesy of his new pal, writer and gambling addict Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany). A snooty aristocrat, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell) serves as the antagonist and Will’s main rival in jousting and in love: both seek the affection of Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon). The setup is familiar, and the plot won’t surprise you: Will wins the big game, gets the girl and changes his stars.
But who cares, honestly? When you watch enough of them, it turns out most movies have predictable plots, because they’re all based on nigh-universal narrative structures that are the very basis of storytelling. People don’t watch films to be constantly surprised by plot twists. They watch them for stunning sights and moving performances, to be scared and amused and otherwise moved by feeling. They watch them to have their jaws dropped and their hearts in their mouths and their fingernails digging into their palm. They watch them to laugh and cry and punch the air with excitement. No one would watch movies again and again if they were watching them for the plot.
The art is in the telling, and A Knight’s Tale tells its simple, straightforward story really well. It’s really funny for one, from small gags – Roland asks to borrow Will’s nose plugs and Will specifies left and right as he passes them, as if they’re earphones – to snappy banter and slapstick and words that just sound funny, like Wat repeatedly threatening to “fong” people. Unfavourable comparisons to Monty Python pop up frequently in negative reviews (“half Python, half Ivanhoe–and not as much fun as either”), for no other reason than it’s set in medieval times and so was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But that’s not the tradition of British comedy A Knight’s Tale is trying to ape. It’s clearly more inspired by the likes of Brassed Off and especially The Full Monty (which also starred Mark Addy), fusing their comic style with the narrative structure and visual style of an American sports film.
The Fully Monty’s influence is most apparent in the ribbing and banter, like Roland telling a bunch of Frenchmen that “the Pope may be French, but Jesus is English”. It’s an American imitation and it doesn’t always sound right, but it’s obviously not going for Pythonesque absurdity. The sports drama comes out strongest in the fight scenes, with the jousts shot like races, alternating static wides with shaky closeups, while the duels look like boxing matches, the camera ducking and weaving like the fighters themselves. The plot is boilerplate inspirational sports movie, with a strong high school undercurrent to the conflict between Will and Adhemar, who mocks him like an upperclassman at a private school ribbing on the working-class scholarship student, but its humour and the core dynamic between Will and his friends is pure class comedy. You can see both influences in the film’s two training scenes. The first is a high-energy montage in which Will learns how to joust and slapstick ensues. But in the second, first Chaucer and then Will’s grouchy blacksmith friend, Kate (Laura Fraser) try to teach him how to dance so he can impress all the aristocrats at the banquet. It’s initially funny, because none of the men know what they’re doing, and then very touching as you watch all these discarded people come together to help each other.
Even before he’s exposed as a commoner by Adhemar in the final act, Will is looked down upon by the other competitors because his ignorance of aristocratic custom and his beat-up old armour give him the demeanour of a “country knight” without noble heritage. Adhemar mocks Will’s armour the first time he meets him (“You’ll start a new fashion if you win. My grandfather will be able to wear his in public again.”) and tries to embarrass him at the banquet (or prom, if you prefer) by asking him to teach everyone “a dance of Gelderland”. This leads to one of the famous anachronistic music cues, as everyone dances to “Golden Years” by David Bowie, one of the many scenes where rock music is associated with the working-class, because that’s what the anachronistic soundtrack is about.
In fact, all the anachronisms are used as class signifiers. The film starts with a crowd chanting “We Will Rock You” as if they were cheering a football match, the traditional sport of working-class Britain. Ulrich and his friends arrive in London for the World Championships to the tune of “The Boys Are Back In Town”, one of the most iconic songs to come out of working-class Dublin. While all the aristocrats’ heralds address only the nobles in the audience, Chaucer addresses the commoners – “My lords, my ladies, and everybody else here not sitting on a cushion!” – and announces Will like a wrestler – “I give you, the Seeker of Serenity, the Protector of Italian Virginity, the Enforcer of Our Lord God, the one, the only, Sir Uuuuuuuuulrich von Liechtenstein!” – in reference to how the real Chaucer legitimised the use of English vernacular in high literature when previously only Latin and French were considered respectable. At one tournament, some Frenchmen taunt Will’s entourage by saying no Englishman will win, while they chant back “he’s blond, he’s pissed, he’ll see you in the lists!” because jousting is football.
It’s not exactly a comment on medieval society, but nor is it “history made smaller than life, Middle Ages pageantry interpreted for stadium spectators with limited attention spans from the age of Whasssup? ads and foam-rubber fingers”. So many reviewers treated the anachronisms as merely a gimmick that they never really considered the setting might be the gimmick, that the melding of modern and medieval isn’t a comment on one or the other but a representation of the timeless or transhistorical nature of class conflict. “The point of all this, of course, is that the fourteenth century was just as glitzy and starstruck as our own”, wrote Peter Rainer of New York, except that’s not the point, not even a little bit, not at all.
It’s infuriating to look back through reviews of A Knight’s Tale and see the class element of this film treated so blithely while half the reviews are just snide commentary on young people and their ignorance. Brief notice is duly paid to Will’s working-class background, but not to how his pit crew comes together on the basis of solidarity. Will’s fellow commoners, Roland and Wat, let him spend most of their share of the first tournament’s winnings on fixing his armour so they can win a bigger prize and stick it to the rich who spit on them. The cash-strapped bohemian Chaucer gives Will his loyalty when Will gives up all his winnings at the next tournament to bail him out of a gambling debt. Kate, who’s ostracised by the other blacksmiths because she’s a woman who took over her late husband’s forge, is welcomed to the party after she helps Will pass for noble at the banquet. There’s a beautiful scene where Will is composing a love letter to Jocelyn after pushing her away in a fit of rage and everyone contributes lines they’ve used to describe their own heartache – “The pieces of my heart can pass through the eye of a needle” gets me every time – working together to create from their common experience the poetry Will lacks due to his poor education.
When he ends up in the stocks for falsifying his identity, his friends stand guard, ready to defend him from the crowd, Roland with a bat, Kate with her hammers and Wat with his fists ready to fong all comers. On paper, at least, they’re all just Will’s employees. They’re finally back in England after years of working abroad due to lack of job opportunities in their homeland – two years for Kate, three for Wat, five for Roland. They could easily walk away and return to their communities, perhaps even their families. But they put themselves between Will and a hostile mob because he’s earned their loyalty by seeing and respecting their humanity when no one else would.
This isn’t to say A Knight’s Tale is a manifesto of class struggle or that it doesn’t have some dissonant notes. When Will’s friendly rival, Edward, Prince of Wales (James Purefoy) knights him so he can compete in the tournament final, he does so only after announcing his personal historians have discovered Will is descended from an ancient line of kings, so no one thinks he’s knighting a damn commoner. The mirroring of Will and Edward, who also conceals his identity to compete because no one will tilt against royalty in case they embarrass them by winning, is one of the weaker elements of the story, notwithstanding Ledger and Purefoy’s chemistry. But the heart of the film, Will’s fellowship of the margins, is genuinely moving, a we’re-all-in-this-together vision of unity against the powerful that’s naïve, sure, but exactly the kind of fantasy of camaraderie that can put a smile on my face any day.
A Knight’s Tale isn’t a masterpiece, but if we only reconsidered masterpieces, we’d be doing a disservice to our evolving understanding of the medium and its history. Not only did loads of critics describe A Knight’s Tale and its aesthetics incorrectly, but their lazy comparisons to Monty Python obscured its actual place in film history, which is as a really weird, interesting hybrid between the American sports drama and the very specific lineage of gender-inflected British class comedies from Brassed Off and The Full Monty through Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots, Made in Dagenham and Pride. I obviously can’t blame them for not situating it in a lineage that didn’t exist yet, but it’s wild to me that they couldn’t see the connection with The Full Monty even with Mark Addy’s fat bearded face gawking right at them.
And no, it doesn’t matter, not really, not in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an impoverished film criticism that takes only the best and worst films seriously while the merely good or okay of the great middle passes before glazed eyes. It’s the endemic culture of arrogance and laziness among the cultural commentariat that produces, at its most extreme end, Rex Reed’s infamous review of The Cabin in the Woods, in which he hallucinates a non-existent second half to the movie and closes with a tirade against the film’s presumed audience of “electronics nerds and skateboarders addicted to Xbox 360 video games whose knowledge of the arts begins and ends with MTV2”. Reed was widely and appropriately mocked at the time, but while he raises pompous, ignorant, out-of-touch git to a new level, is it really that much more embarrassing than Peter Rainer thinking young people won’t recognise the clichés in A Knight’s Tale because their “movie knowledge generally extends back for, at most, a decade”? Or him and every other reviewer calling it “hip” for having a 70s rock soundtrack in 2001?
The Cabin in the Woods is no masterpiece and neither is A Knight’s Tale, but both deserve the respect of critical attention simply by virtue of being movies. More importantly those who read criticism to understand film better, or just to decide whether to spend their often-limited funds on seeing a movie, should be able to trust critics to watch films in good faith, describe them accurately and analyse them thoughtfully. It’s literally the bare minimum anyone should be able expect, even or especially when it comes to popcorn trash.
A Knight’s Tale is good! I wouldn’t buy a new DVD of it or anything (especially since there’s like five copies in every second-hand shop I’ve ever shopped in) but if it’s on TV some night or available on Netflix in your region and you want a fun movie that’s cleverer than you’d expect, go for it. That’s my crazy take on the situation.