If you’ve been following this column at all, you know that I enjoy teaching folks about the history of the real Middle Ages by pointing out the real issues with the reel Middle Ages.
This often leads to the misconceptions that I don’t “get” that many movies are meant to be “just fantasy” or that I hate most medieval movies. To such keen criticisms, I would reply that I totally get that fantasies aren’t meant to be historically accurate (though they clearly utilize that history and, fantasy or not, “teach” audiences about it), and oh my god I totally enjoy most medieval movies.
No. Scratch that. I adore most medieval movies — even the ones that cause me to roll my eyes at their historical inaccuracies.
When I’m asked what my favorite medieval movie is, though, my answer is always the same: A Knight’s Tale (dir. Brian Helgeland, 2001). Largely — and I’m gonna try to make this make sense, I swear — my undying love for this film is because of its perfect historical inaccuracies.
I first saw A Knight’s Tale in theaters. I was just finishing up my first Masters degree (in Medieval Studies, natch), and I went with a good medievalist friend of mine (Hi, Keith!) to check the movie out for, um, research purposes. It took us about five minutes for us to fall in love with it.
All these years later, I still love it.
Honestly, those first five minutes of the film exemplify almost everything that’s great about the movie. After a standard title-card historical synopsis that explains how jousting was a sport of the noble class in the Middle Ages, we meet three young men: William Thatcher (played by the late Heath Ledger), Roland (Mark Addy), and Wat Valhurst (Alan Tudyk). I love them all.
The three young fellows are squires to Sir Ector, and they’re in a bind. Sir Ector has been competing in a minor jousting tournament, and he’s been doing quite well: he only needs to ride once more through the jousting lane without being unhorsed, and he’ll be victorious. He’ll get winnings, and his squires — who haven’t eaten in three days — will get a square meal. The only problem, as the young lads have just discovered, is that Sir Ector Has ceased to be, shuffled off this mortal coil, and gone to meet his maker. He is an ex-knight.
Wat: What do you mean, dead?
Roland: The spark of his life is smothered in shite. His spirit is gone but his stench remains. Does that answer your question?
Within these few minutes, we see the personalities of all three of these squires, and they’re fantastic. Roland is the oldest, most experienced, and most sensible. When he sees that Ector is dead, his immediate response is to think about fetching a priest. Wat isn’t of the same mind. His reaction is to “rouse” the dead knight by kicking and beating him, taking out his frustrations in the most physical manner possible. And then there’s William, who is a deft middle ground of passions and practicality. Heath Ledger gives him a perfect balance of personality: he’s hungry, he’s angry, but he’s also resourceful and pragmatically idealistic. If he puts on Sir Ector’s armor, he muses, no one will know he’s not a noble. They can get the money, they can eat, and they can deal with the dead man later. It’s not like Ector is going anywhere, after all.
William: I’ve waited my whole life for this moment.
Wat: “You’ve waited your whole life for Sir Ector to shite himself to death?”
The scene now shifts to opening credits that unfold over scenes of the tournament and its crowd … all set to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
A lot of critics were thrown at this point: they complained that using a soundtrack of classic rock for a movie that is set in the 1370s is tremendously anachronistic.
They’re quite right. The music of Queen is about six centuries off the mark for the movie’s setting. At the same time, as the director himself rightly pointed out, a traditional symphonic score would also be pretty damn anachronistic, even if we don’t think of it that way. There were no symphonies in the fourteenth century, after all.
The anachronism is just getting started, though, and how it happens shows that there’s something important at work here: before we know what’s happening, Queen isn’t just the background soundtrack for the audience: it’s what the tournament crowd itself is singing. And they’re singing it while doing the wave, eating turkey legs, and waving banners in support of one knight or another. Not one bit of it is accurate to history, yet it’s oh so perfectly historical.
This is a complex idea, and it’ll take some unpacking. My medievalist friend with whom I watched the movie in the theater would go on to write a wonderful and oft-cited essay about the unfair standards against which academics judge medieval films. It’s a rebuke, in many ways, of the kind of naysaying that I sometimes do in this column. Along the way, Dr Kelly (Hi, Keith!) utilizes A Knight’s Tale to make his point (I told you we both loved this film):
From a post-modern perspective, this film challenges the ideas of a medieval past as being so very different from the present. Spectators singing a rock and roll song by Queen at a medieval joust certainly raise the eyebrow of many, but the song certainly strikes a more familiar chord with a modern audience than the strumming of a lute. Does the modern song convey the enthusiasm and pageantry of such events to a modern audience more successfully than an authentic tune would have done? A Geoffrey Chaucer — thin, energetic and young — who cavorts before the nobles and composes caustic and humorous rhyme, while not the Geoffrey found in the Ellesmere manuscript, certainly conveys the poet’s style (or at least a particular view of that style) in a modern sense.
In other words, there is a truth of historical reality, and then there is a truth of historical relationship — a difference between knowing the actual physical feel of the past and the relative emotional feel of it. This is not to say that anything goes and facts are no longer facts. As I’ve noted before, that’s pretty much my idea of Hell. Rather, facts have contexts, and that context drives our emotional responses to the facts.
Because we don’t live in the fourteenth century, we don’t have the same context for a historically accurate jousting as a person would have had back then. A tournament back in the day was like the Super Bowl, but a wholly accurate representation of the event would not give us that same sense. Rather than pulling us into the moment, the full truth would push us out of it: rather than fostering the connection between the present and the past, it would have emphasized the separation. So Helgeland split the difference: he included tons of historical accuracies with non-historical familiarities.
It’s brilliant and delightful fun.
As good a job as that opening scene does in establishing this framework, though, my favorite example of how A Knight’s Tale uses these twin presentations of truth is later in the film, when William — now jousting in disguise as Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein — goes to a dance. The dance begins by being truthful to historical reality: medieval instruments making simple sounds as the dancers go through formalized movements. It all seems quite stilted and unexciting to us now, but such a dance would have been quite the party in the fourteenth century.
So how does the film convey this? By having the musicians seamlessly slip their lute-strumming into a familiar tune that evolves into David Bowie’s “Golden Years” … at the very same time that the dancers devolve their formalized organization into the unbridled joy and chaos of a modern dance floor.
Oh hell yeah.
(If you’re interested, composer Carter Burwell has written about the difficulties of getting the music to work through this sequence.)
The filmmakers even took this same balance into their costuming and design. The hairstyles and garb of love-interest Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) and her lady-in-waiting, Christiana (Berenice Bejo), are particularly fascinating in this regard.
Still, I don’t want to give you the impression that Helgeland just tossed real historical truth out the window. There’s a lot of medieval truth in this film. Roland’s concern about the implications of the number 13, for instance, or the fascination with the symbology of the phoenix. Or having patents of nobility with wax seals attached to them.
Ulrich von Lichtenstein was a real knight (though dead for about 100 years by the time of the movie’s action, and he’s most well-known for writing about what it means to be a knight. The film splices the inspiration of this idea with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (thus Simon the Summoner and Peter the Pardoner) and legends of the life of William Marshall with a subplot involving the Free Companies via Adhemar, count of Anjou (Rufus Sewell) and his squire Germaine (Scott Handy).
And oh yes, Chaucer is literally a character in this film. Played by Paul Bettany, he steals scenes left and right. Hell, his first appearance in the film is his naked ass striding across the frame and on down the road, interrupting our lads in their journey:
William: Oi sir, what are you doing?
Chaucer: Uh… trudging. [pause] You know, trudging? To trudge: the slow, weary, depressing yet determined walk of a man who has nothing left in life except the impulse to simply soldier on.
William: Uhhh… were you robbed?
Chaucer: [laughs] Interesting question, actually. Yes, but at the same time a huge resounding no. It’s more sort of an… involuntary vow of poverty… really.
But you know on the brighter side trudging does represent pride. Pride, resolve, and faith in the good lord almighty … please, Christ, rescue me from my current tribula —
[Steps on a thorn and uses his teeth to bite it out of his foot]
Roland: Who are you?
Chaucer: The lilium inter spinus, the lily among thorns. Geoffrey Chaucer’s the name, writing’s the game.
[Turns away, turns back]
Chaucer: Chaucer? Geoffrey Chaucer, the writer?
Wat: A what?
Chaucer: A wha- a what? A writer. You know, I write, with ink and parchment. For a penny, I’ll scribble you anything you want. From summons, decrees, edicts, warrants, patents of nobility. I’ve even been know to jot down a poem or two, if the muse descends. You’ve probably read my book? The Book of the Duchess?
[They look at each other, shake their heads]
Chaucer: Fine. Well, it was allegorical.
Roland: Well, we won’t hold that against you, that’s for every man to decide for himself.
I’m a Chaucer fanboy, obviously, but damnit that’s funny.
Look, I don’t want to give too much away, because if you haven’t seen this film you NEED TO DO SO RIGHT NOW OH MY GOD WHY ARE YOU STILL READING THIS AND NOT WATCHING IT … but I will say this:
This movie has the best push into a flashback that I’ve ever seen. It features a medieval training montage to the tune of “Low Rider.” The acting is consistently fantastic, even from relatively “minor” characters like Kate the badass blacksmith (Laura Fraser) and Sir Thomas Colville (James Purefoy). And so many lines are so very quotable.
Plus, you know, slow-motion jousting with exploding lances is awesome.
Mike’s Medieval Ratings
Authenticity: 6 out of 10 Jocelyn sunbonnets
Just Plain Fun: 20 out of 10 gardens of his turbulence
Seriously, follow your feet and go check this one out. Change your stars.
Originally published in December 2017.
Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Culture at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy trilogy set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of Heaven, The Gates of Hell, and The Realms of God, is available from Tor Books.