Surely, you joust. Knights rocking out?
You have to admire artists who take risks. In just his second directorial outing, Brian Helgeland took one whale of a chance by opting to infuse a period piece set in the 14th century with a boatload of anachronisms—including a 1970s rock ‘n’ roll score and costuming that was partly inspired by the Rolling Stones 1972 tour, as well as, apparently, the elegant Audrey Hepburn.
In the opening scene, “A Knight’s Tale” explodes on the screen with a jousting contest enlivened by the raucous original version of “We Will Rock You,” performed by Queen. As the music plays on, medieval peasants clap, stomp, and dance in modern fashion, even doing the “wave,” as if they were spectators at a contemporary sporting event. From that initial moment, you’ll know almost instantly if you’re going to love this quirky film, or hate it.
But a word of warning to any Chaucer scholars out there. The Bard of Canterbury gets a make-over as one of two markedly anachronistic characters in this otherwise standard medieval tale of jousting knights and would-be nobility. “Geoff” (Paul Bettany) appears butt-naked on more than one occasion, completely stripped down by a worldly pardoner who seems to have doubled as the “muscle” in charge of collecting gambling debts. It’s not the nudity that stands out, of course, but the loan-shark treatment and the contemporary spin Chaucer puts on his new job as herald, the one who’s to announce his knight at every tournament. While the rest of the heralds conform to the medieval practice of simply announcing their knight’s lineage, Chaucer can’t resist the captive audience and the challenge to his powers of imagination and wordsmanship. With great flair, he introduces Sir Ulrich of Lichtenstein (Heath Ledger)— who’s really the commoner Will Thatcher posing as a knight after the nobleman he was serving died, leaving the squires without income or food—the way a Madison Square Garden promoter introduces a professional wrestler.
The other largely anachronistic character in “A Knight’s Tale” is the Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), who looks and acts flat-out contemporary, dressing at times like Audrey Hepburn, with broad-banded lampshade-style hat and a black-and-white dress that looks as if it could have come from the wardrobe closet of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Other times, she wears her hair like Cyndi Lauper circa 1987, crimped, streaked, and partially spiked in ’80s punk style, with a gown that sports a plunging neckline and a side view of her breasts. She and Chaucer stand out the most as being contemporary characters who seem dropped, like Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” into an otherwise believable medieval scenario—which, along with the music, gives this a unique spin. On one of the many extras in this Extended Cut, Sossamon says, “I forget I’m in a period film. Everyone’s acting very modern” and cool. Cool people everywhere. And that’s because Helgeland said he saw these knights who traveled from tournament to tournament as the medieval equivalent of today’s rock stars, and devised a film that would treat them that way, and also make this period of history come alive for contemporary viewers. That, he certainly does—though when he abandons all pretexts of creating a portal into the Middle Ages and opts for a thoroughly modern dance scene, Helgeland pushes the anachronisms to the max. That will bother some, while (come on, relax) will find it the blend of humor and action that Helgeland intended.
Ledger turns in a decent performance as the commoner who takes up armor and lance first to provide a meal for himself and his friends, but then in order to act out the part of the knight that he always dreamed of becoming as a young boy. You can change your stars, he’s determined to prove, and as Sir Ulrich, with Chaucer’s help, Will becomes a bit of a populist hero. The plot isn’t terribly complex, however. It’s joust after joust, with interludes that are part romantic and part showcase for his goofy entourage, which includes Chaucer, the rotund and quick-witted Roland (Mark Addy), the dense and fiery Wat (Alan Tudyk), and a slightly anachronistic female blacksmith and armor-maker named Kate (Laura Fraser). The entire film was shot in the Czech republic, and while the subscript announces different locations for the jousting contests in France, if every “stadium” starts to look the same, it’s because there were just two jousting sets—one for Rouen, France, and the other to represent London.
Rufus Sewell plays the ignoble noble Count Adhemar with all the relish and flair of that chariot-racing Messala in “Ben-Hur.” And like Messala, whose wheels were rigged with illegal spoke-shredding blades, the Count shows up to joust against Will/Ulrich with illegally tipped lances and trademark lances that have a clenched fist on the end. And that little anachronism ought to make “Top Secret!” fans laugh out loud, it looks so similar to the “anal intruder” gag from that film.
“A Knight’s Tale” is fun and energetic, though the length works against the energy level at times, and so, frankly, does the repetition of jousting tournaments. It can get a bit old. But in the end, the populist theme and anachronisms save the day. It’s a fun and funky romp.
Those of you wondering whether you need to upgrade to the Extended Cut have a tough decision. It would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall during discussions between the director and Columbia marketing people, because the commentary that Helgeland and Bettany offered for the “Special Edition” release is missing here. So are two deleted scenes, with introductions from Helgeland and his producer—and that’s because those deleted scenes were the ones added to make this Extended Cut. Note that they didn’t call this the Director’s Cut? Perhaps that’s because in the intro to one scene, Helgeland tells how he really hated to cut it, while on the other one, he said they took out the introduction to Count Adhemar because it was comic and undercut the kind of menace they were trying to create for him. It’s a shame that the intros to these deleted scenes are also missing on the new edition, because Helgeland appeared without a front tooth on them, explaining that Ledger accidentally whacked him in the face with a broom handle while they were trying to demonstrate how a scene should be shot, and that he was the only jousting casualty in the film. Also missing is an insert with production notes, the DVD-Rom screensaver, and filmographies from the first release.
Otherwise, there’s the same 11 featurettes (all quite good, if short-short), the same HBO Making-of Special, and a music video of “We Are the Champions” by Robbie Williams and Queen. So there’s actually a loss of features on the new release.
Video: For the Extended Cut version, Portuguese has been added on the subtitle options, as was the wording that the film was “Mastered in High Definition.” Now, call me a skeptic, but it didn’t say Remastered, and I frankly can’t tell much of a difference in sharpness or color levels between the Special and Extended Cut editions. The first transfer was pretty darned good, and, for all I know, may have even been a high definition transfer.
Audio: The soundtrack is rockin’, with thumping bass and great movement across the front main and center speakers. And what a great collection of tunes! Songs include Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business,” Rare Earth’s “Get Ready,” Thin Lizzy’s “The Boy’s Are Back in Town,” War’s “Low Rider,” and David Bowie’s “Golden Years.” Positively medieval, right?
Extras: The 11 featurettes, for those who’d like to know, are: “The Rock Music Scene in 1370,” “Sexy Armor & a Rock Band on Tour,” “You Never Know What You’ll Find in a Czech Prop House,” “School of Hard Knocks,” “Tournaments—a Cross Between Pro Football and Stock Car Racing,” “The Marquee Event,” “The World’s 1st Sports Promoter,” “Stories for the People,” “The Rules of Love,” “Heath Ledger Profile,” and “A Director’s Quest.”
Bottom Line: This edition seems all about the addition of those two deleted scenes, neither of which, inserted, makes much of a difference. And only one of those scenes was regretfully cut by the director. If you don’t already own “A Knight’s Tale,” this fun movie is worth adding to your collection. But if you’ve got the Special Edition, I see no reason to upgrade to the Extended Cut. “A Knight’s Tale” is fresh and entertaining, but at 132 minutes it was already dragging a bit. Adding 12 minutes doesn’t help.