Second in a series of random film reviews: A Knight's Tale

Immediately as the recognisable beats of Queen's "We will rock you" blasted over the medieval jousting tournament, I knew, as an historian, I should hate this film. Hate it with a passion. I should have hated it even more because at it's heart is a very conventional story about how if you believe in yourself blah de blah you can achieve anything... surely we do not need to have this blatant lie forced down out throats at every opportunity? But still, I cannot hold this against what turns out to be a very entertaining film which also has helped me (along with Sophia Coppola's 'Marie Antionette' but I will come back to that later) understand the different ways in which we can gaze on history.

First a short synopsis of the film. Handsome lad William (Heath Ledger) works for a knight, going around medieval France to participate in the jousts (in one of the featurettes the director claims that these jousting tournaments were the sports matches of their day... fair enough but he did not mention that tournaments were also a substitute for war campaigns which is why they were so dangerous and were actually banned by most monarchs in Europe). By accident he ends up taking part and he and his friends, engagingly played by Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk, see a way out of their current poverty. So William ends up impersonating a knight and with the help of Chaucer, whom they meet in bizarre circumstances, he is able to enter the tournaments based on a deceit; a peasant pretending to be of noble birth. No medieval film would be complete without the 'unobtainable' lady, Jocelyn, whom William falls in love with. By doing so, he makes an enemy of Count Adhemar of Anjou, the token bad guy (because he is played by Rufus Sewell he is not nearly bad enough) who he has to beat in the "World Tournament" in London. If the outcome is rather predictable, it is the approach to history which this film takes which makes it interesting, as well as it being very funny in parts thanks to the sincerety of the actors who look like they had lots of fun making it.

This film presents history as though it were in 'the present.' I am still trying to work out how to best describe the difference... so bear with me! In my mind most historical films treat history very reverentially, getting the details right, but presenting it as though it were 'in the past' and the characters within the story know they are in the past and act accordingly. But films like 'A Knight's Tale' treat the past more irreverently and treat the past as though it were 'in the present' - happening 'now' so to speak. So for example, as the Director explained on the DVD he wanted to have modern music to convey to the audience that in the medieval times they would have had 'modern' music that was like Queen is to us today. However if he had used 'medieval' sounding music this point would have been lost as we (the audience) would see it only as 'historical' rather than modern. He also used words such as 'wow' because he felt the medieval times would have had their own versions... yet because we do not possess much evidence for how medieval people actually spoke how can we know what they said for 'wow'? 'Marie Antoniette' by Sophia Coppola took a similar approach, portraying Marie as an 'It' girl dancing to Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow to convey to modern audiences how out of step she was with the rest of the French monarchy who were drowning in their own tradition. So yes at first it seems jarring with our view of history but it is a refreshing way to help engage with the idea that in the times depicted people did not think of themselves as 'medieval' but they were modern, they saw themselves in the here and now, as we see ourselves today. And I like that.


Amy said…
This kind of reminds me of those 1950s Hollywood films and their take on medieval Europe (though any specific examples escape me) - i.e. the transposition of contemporary social mores and forms of speech on historical contexts. I see no problem here, providing the viewer is aware that the narrative is just an evocation of history, not history itself. On the other hand, I have a BIG problem with films like 'Titantic', which take an historical event and manipulate and fictionalise it, with complete disregard for the families of those individuals involved, and thereby, essentially, re-writing history (for financial gain). Argh! It makes me sooooooo angry!
Ceri said…
I would agree that all films transpose social mores of the present onto the film even if presenting them as 'past' because it is only our conception of the past we can portray. So yes A Knights Tale etc are blatant about that whereas films like Titanic and Pearl Harbour (yuck yuck) by pretending to be earnest and telling the 'truth' (a word which is much abused) about history tell us more about now and our relationship with history. But I am starting to think that IS the only way we can look at history... in the current conception of history that is :)

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