A Knight’s Tale and the
“Modernization” of Popular History
By Jeffrey Badders
Throughout the era of classical films, Hollywood was often guilty of what many contemporary Americans generally see as a prejudice; for instance, women were mostly objects and mostly there for the often faultless and ever masculine hero to save, while characters of different cultures other than White Americans were portrayed as ignorant or comical, many times even with White actors (think of the “Middle-Eastern” characters in Lawrence of Arabia or Sinbad), and every story centered around justice, liberty, and other such American ideals. In modern times, while aspects of American culture have changed, the formula for creating a popular movie has not: in academic terms, a successful movie must appeal to the “popular American narrative.” In theatrical terms, a film has to “give the audience what it wants,” and historical accuracy, rather than gender or ethnicity, has become one of the greatest victims of the drive for mass appeal in today’s American movie market.
Increasingly, historical fact is being “molded” or even ignored in the movies in order to “bring an old world to a modern audience,” a quote which is part of Director Brian Helgeland’s actual argument in an interview included with the “special extended edition” DVD version of his film, A Knight’s Tale, a film which perfectly demonstrates this method of “modernizing” historical movies. Helgeland’s experimentation with on-screen historical fiction provides us with an adventurous folk-tale, with dashes of both comedy and romance (the sort of story meant to appeal to as many random movie-goers as possible), and perhaps one of the most striking examples of movie-making’s disregard for history that I have ever seen.
Having not previously seen the 2001 film, I decided it was my best available target for a look into Hollywood’s take on (or in many cases, perversion of) history: at first glance, the cover of the DVD case includes the catch-phrase “he will rock you”, which I was immediately certain somehow had to do with classic rock band Queen and their well-known anthem. I was intrigued that it was even chosen to advertise that particular film, and it was my first indication that director Helgeland had consciously and openly undertaken a “blending” of modern social elements in a historical setting.
Thus, in a serious attempt to judge the film as a portrayal of history but also to respect it as a piece of art meant for entertainment, I decided to watch A Knight’s Tale twice from two consciously different standpoints, a method which came up with very mixed results. The first time, I experienced it as an average home movie-watcher and found that I enjoyed the film quite thoroughly, light-heartedly cheering for the protagonist and laughing – where I was supposed to. But by the following evening, when I approached the DVD player a second time, from the standpoint of a historian who had been thinking about it all day, I had grown quite vengeful towards Mr. Helgeland and A Knight’s Tale. Already a horridly misleading and paradoxical concept in and of itself, the director’s purposefully-flagrant method of “modernizing” on-screen portrayals of history had provided a more complicated task than I had come to expect from previous similar film critiques.
The film does not state the year (or even the century) in which the story is supposed to take place, but judging by evidence from the few characters based on actual historical figures (which will be more thoroughly discussed later), the tale apparently takes place in the 14th century, most likely around the year 1370, during the reign of King Edward II and the earlier half of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Its theme centers on social-mobility and the idea of an English common-man and squire, played by Heath Ledger, who is born into poverty but is lucky, clever, and faithfully determined enough to elevate his social status from that of lowly squire to that of a respected nobleman. A quick glance at the ridiculously hopeful premise of the motion picture might make the serious historian immediately cringe; but the “historical content” (if it can be called that) of A Knight’s Tale goes even further downhill from there.
After the death of their master in the middle of a jousting tournament, fellow servants and squires Roland (Mark Addy), Wat (Alan Tudyk), and William Thatcher (Ledger) hatch a last-minute plan to earn money for food: disguise William as their dead master and finish the tournament in his place. William’s own dreams of “changing his stars” lead him to persuade his friends to help him continue the farce, and he travels across Western Europe, (mostly France) competing in the jousting tournaments under the name of “Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein of Gelderland.” The three squires are joined by a young, witty, and sarcastic Geoffrey Chaucer (portrayed rather hysterically by Paul Bettany), who acts as “Liechtenstein’s” herald and forger of legal documents. The group also picks up a rather bold and confident female blacksmith, Kate the Farrier (Laura Fraiser), who incidentally also happens to be a genius with the contemporary technological advancements in the production of steel armor.
As they travel and participate in the joust competitions, a rivalry grows between William and the arrogant Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell) over the joust competitions as well as the attention of the beautiful (and very independent-thinking) noble lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon). Due to circumstances, the two enemies fail to get a chance to compete against each other; in one case, Adhemar withdraws when he finds out that one of his opponents is Edward, the powerful “Black Prince of Wales” and warrior son of current English King Edward III, disguised as an ordinary knight in order to compete (and portrayed as a classy and benevolent member of the royal family by James Purefoy). William, however, seeing the similarity between his and the Prince’s situation, decides to knowingly joust against the Prince and wins the tournament, earning the Prince’s personal respect.
Eventually, Adhemar discovers William’s true identity, and he is arrested upon his return to London for posing as nobility. After some loyal support from his comrades (including a fiery and “socially-aware” speech from the silver-tongued Chaucer which aimed at appealing to the poor common people), Prince Edward shows up graciously to save William, and the peasant is released from his restraints and knighted before the crowd, allowing our brave hero finally to face and defeat the evil Adhemar as a true nobleman, win the hand of gorgeous Jocelyn, and make his blind and impoverished father proud.
As I had originally suspected, the action kicks off with the pounding beat of Queen’s famous sports-anthem, "We Will Rock You"; to my surprise, however, the director openly exaggerates the modern aspects of the supposed-medieval scene rather than trying to hide or blend them. The crowd “does the wave” as at a modern baseball stadium, competitors pump their breastplates like football players, and the nobles, apparently fans of 1970’s rock-and-roll, sing along to the theme music; the guitar solo, in fact, is even timed to appear as though it comes from the trumpet players on the tournament grounds.
In the director’s defense, the music of this scene, and much of the film, actually does achieve the purpose Helgeland intended for it: helping to draw the modern viewer into the atmosphere of a medieval joust tournament or the nobility’s post-game feast and celebrations by likening such situations to a modern counterpart. The music is characteristic of the sort played at a football game or a classy jazz club, and thus, ironically suits its particular scene in nature and emotion with respect to the audience, but of course, not with respect to history.
Though I found the soundtrack of the film one of the more excusable aspects of the director’s “modernization” method of film-making, it is also so obviously out-of-place that it seems to magnify other problems the picture has with depicting the era accurately. For example, many historically-based films have used modern-style speech in order to present understandable dialogue to the movie-viewer, but the trait seems a bit more painfully-apparent in A Knight’s Tale: a word like “Nay,” generally unused in modern times, might be spoken by a character who moments later gives a sarcastically-stretched “helloooo…” or shouts “wow” in excitement, words completely unavailable in the English language of the time and certainly not used with American slang-style meanings.
Helgeland’s thoughts regarding costume are somewhat less clear than his motives with music and dialogue. Some of the costumes are rendered faithfully, while other costumes are terrible and ridiculously out-of-place. The armor and weaponry is indeed meticulously crafted to appear as mirror-image models of full-body armor in medieval Europe, although their designs are more similar to those found later in the 15th and 16th century. Patchy leather-and-plate armor was still in the process of evolving into full-body steel or iron outfits in the 1300’s, and while useful versions of the fully-enclosed helmets were only just becoming introduced at the end of the 1300’s, they seem the norm in A Knight’s Tale. In reality, most knights in the time would have more than likely still be wearing skullcaps and chain-mail neck covers, providing less protection for their eyes and face. --- On Helgeland’s depiction these medieval warriors are mostly absent of any chain-mail at all. (Singman 139-55).
However, since the armor used at tournaments by nobility was always of a higher quality than that used in war, meant to display the wearer’s majesty and economic status as much as it was to protect, a spectator at a joust tournament would have been among the first to see new advances made in steel-working and artistic design. Furthermore, numerous new armor designs and metal-working methods were constantly emerging and changing throughout the medieval period; and in the case of the wealthier classes, armor might be custom-created by independent blacksmiths for their personal customer (usually their own lord or master). Taking this knowledge into account, we might excuse (albeit, generously) the innovations of William’s proud female blacksmith Kate, who claims to have discovered “a new way to heat the steel” and produces revolutionary light-weight armor for William.
Like armor, regular clothing in the film seems designed after 15th and 16th century models. Peasants, especially the English, would have worn garments composed mostly wool and linen: A Knight’s Tale uses a bit too much leather in its clothing construction and is mostly lacking in animal furs, which were used across Europe from the common man to royalty. Furthermore, while only the character’s collars are laced in the film, laces would have been more prevalent and numerous in 14th century garment of both nobility and peasantry, often tying the seams of a garment’s sides and back in addition to the front. Finally, a typical crime of Hollywood, the women in A Knight’s Tale (even many of the background spectators) wear more revealing outfits than were considered respectable at the time, while hoods, “the characteristic headgear” of this time period are surprisingly uncommon in the film. (Singman 94-7, 101, 109).
Unfortunately, a discussion of costumes unwittingly leads to a focus upon the nature of one of the film’s main characters, and begins to reveal the major faults in the picture’s portrayals of 14th century persons. One does not have to be very knowledgeable about the Middle Ages to wonder how the noble beauty Jocelyn, the object of the protagonist’s desires, is “hip” and up-to-date on 21st century fashion modeling. Her gaudy and meticulously-designed outfit styles contain influences that range from Oriental, to African tribal, to Native American, to an absolutely ridiculous dress-and-hat combination that is strikingly reminiscent of a New York “flapper” girl in the 1920’s. After witnessing several of her outfits, I would not have been surprised if Jocelyn had at some point produced a cell phone, or jumped in a candy-red sports car and driven away.
Again, the director is trying to appeal to a 21st century audience by showing a level of beauty by modern standards that is “proportional,” in a sense, to what a 14th century knight might have seen in a noblewoman at the time, who would have much more-modest dress compared to the modern outfits of Jocelyn, but would have been flashy and stylish for its time. However, as a fan of history as well as a common movie-viewer, I am left completely unconvinced that Jocelyn is a noblewoman in feudal 14th century Europe, and therefore, find her contrasting presence harmful to the movie’s historical atmosphere and flow. Her garb is far too “fashionably postmodern” to belong in a representation of even most of the late Middle Ages, much less the late 1300’s.
But the character of Jocelyn reveals the first of many greater flaws than any music, language, or costume problem could bring to A Knight’s Tale. That is, quite simply, the director’s near-absolute refusal to acknowledge the nature and mannerisms of social customs and people in Europe at the time. Jocelyn is strong-willed, independent, sharp-tongued, manipulative, sarcastic, seductive, and stubborn: these traits, while assuredly by no means absent from women (or men, for that matter) in any period of history, were however hardly displayed as openly and publicly by proper noblewomen in the conservative atmosphere of medieval European society. Jocelyn flirts with William, and challenges him to prove that he respects and values what she has to say; she demands to be treated as an equal and independent person, rather than as a nobleman’s prize trophy (a metaphor which is in contrast attributed to her by Count Ademar). Her character, in other words, is not modeled after the medieval concept of a respectable “noblewoman,” but rather, the modern American’s concept of a “noble” (or rather, nobly-natured) woman, influenced by such progressive philosophies as feminism or individualism. Again, the popular modern American narrative drives the creative direction of the film.
Similar strong conviction and independence are shown in the character of Kate, the female blacksmith (an uncommon but not wholly impossible career for a woman of the time), but as a commoner, she would have been raised in a much harsher and less “proper” culture than the nobility, and thus is not portrayed as uncharacteristically as Jocelyn. Similarly, once the “modernized” dialogue is taken into account and excused, the crude, comedic, and simple speech and behavior of the main characters who are members of the peasantry, such as Roland and Wat, are probably fairly correct representations. As a strange but stark example, after the film’s credits and for some unknown reason, Helgeland includes a brief “fart joke” scene involving William’s band of common-man misfits. Although I don’t understand the director’s purpose in including this incredibly weak attempt at potty humor, I did consider the fact that the common Englishman of the peasantry would doubtlessly have found at least as much humor in disgusting bodily functions as modern men and boys probably do today. So, when the goofy Wat threatens to “fong” somebody, we can understand it as a crude and obscene threat similar to our own crude language, without actually knowing the meaning of the word “fong,” and a natural thing to come out of an impoverished peasant’s mouth, characteristic of the culture and environment he was raised in.
A few questions might be raised about William’s tendency to seem more well-spoken and slightly better-educated than his comrades; but much of the film’s beginnings involve his and his companions efforts in training his speech and other mannerisms to seem like those of a nobleman (such as dancing lessons), and when posing as Ulrich von Liechtenstein, William is obliged to act within noble customs of the society. It is easily determined why Ledger’s character chooses the name “Ulrich von Liechtenstein”, as his other identity; an actual Austrian nobleman in the 1200’s. The real von Liechtenstein was an author of a heroic and Arthurian-style poetry collection Frauendienst (The Service of Ladies), in which he describes himself on a fictional quest, competing in jousts and duels to woo his lady. What is not clear, of course, is how William, an illiterate peasant, is familiar with the author while the more-educated noblemen around him seem to be completely oblivious of the work.
However such upward social-mobility as experienced by William in the film was virtually impossible at the time; modern historian Jeffrey L. Singman, editor of the Middle English Dictionary and co-author of Chaucer’s England, offers only a few extremely-rare cases in which upward mobility on the social scale was achieved through marriage in the era, but contends that it was more common for people to “lose social status if they failed to maintain a mode of living appropriate to their rank.” A wealthy merchant, for example, might be severely punished for looking or acting too much like a noble; for a peasant to literally impersonate a member of this upper class would have been a high crime in the eyes of class-structured medieval society. (Singman 9-10).
Probably the most accurately depicted of all the “fictional” characters (those which are not based on real historical figures) is the “evil” Count Adhemar. The nobleman has his herald introduce him by listing his great feats and prestige, he talks properly and elegantly with Jocelyn but listens to what she says a little, and most of all, he is extremely competitive in nature and looks down upon the noble class, while his only motive in life seems to be money, power, and glory in serving his country at war and impressing the masses at a joust competition. In the American narrative, these are obviously the qualities of a greedy “bad guy”. But in medieval European society, these are arguably the common mannerisms of many successful noblemen; indeed, they the ideals by which much of this culture was able to persist for hundreds of years. It is interesting that antiquated ideals and customs could so easily be depicted as “evil” to modern eyes; this, of course, is why the director has little need to “modernize” this particular character.
The portrayal of Edward the Black Prince of Wales, one of the two main characters based on actual people, could be critiqued as overly-positive; however, it is important to remember that the Prince was a very popular figure of the period and was commonly admired and praised by his contemporaries as well as later historians and English people today; thus the Prince Edward in the film reflects the image depicted by this widespread admiration. Edward’s contemporary and biographer, Sir Chandos Herald, claimed that the Prince never “thought of anything by loyalty, valour, and goodness… wished all his life to maintain justice and right.” Even more recent historians depict the Black Prince as symbolizing “the finer side of the Middle Ages: chivalry, desperate courage, true love, and a debonair liberality.” Due to his “fan base” it is rather difficult to determine accurate characteristics of the famed English hero beyond the benevolent praise, and director Helgeland is loyal to this heroic image in his film (Waugh 129, Harvey 15).
The Prince, son of the reigning English King, Edward, II, was an exceptional military leader for the early period of the Hundred Years’ War, which had basically begun with his father’s campaigns into France in 1338. Having been proclaimed Earl of Chester at age three, Duke of Cornwall at seven, and performing duties of both regent of England in his father’s absence and negotiator with the papacy regarding the war by the time he was only ten, a teenage Edward was already known in the political scene of Europe by the time he was finally proclaimed Prince of Wales in 1343. Only two years later, the young warrior directed his first minor military campaign into Northern France, an act which would grow into a lifelong list of crippling victories over the French. Prince Edward was raised in the world of upper class Europe: a world of war and competing; a world that was completely separate from that of the lowly squire or common-man. He has sometimes been criticized for a few apparent moments of harshness towards the lower-class, such as his heavy taxation of Aquitaine and the rather brutal and needless massacre of the people of Limoges, although historians defend such actions as events to be understood within the context of medieval warfare. (Waugh 129-30).
Nevertheless, with charming character and impressive achievements as a warrior, Edward was, in his time as well as today, often hailed as one of the last true “embodiment[s] of chivalry” in the fading feudal ways of Europe, and one of the “first to identify himself not only with his companion knights and squires but with the whole body of his troops.” He was known for respectful treatment of captives, exemplified by his rather polite methods in detaining and ransoming King John the Good of France, and loved and respected by nobility and commoners alike. But would Edward, a man of war and politics in the upper-crust of a rigid social class system, be able to understand or connect with the everyday peasantry as he does with William in A Knight’s Tale? It is highly unlikely that any royal would have gone out of his way to reward a criminal imposter like William with knighthood, but, if ever there was one great figure in all of 14th century England and France to preach the radical notion that “actions, not blood” make a man noble (as in the film), then it would have certainly been Edward the Black Prince.
Finally, the most distinct and enigmatic character in both Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale and in English history itself, is of course, Geoffrey Chaucer. As alluded to earlier, it is through Chaucer and Edward that one is able to determine the time period of the film; Chaucer mentions, in the movie, having already written The Book of the Duchess, which was finished around 1369, and since the Black Prince died in 1376, we can narrow down the time of the film to somewhere in between. In the film’s commentary, Helgeland implies that the film takes place in 1370, when Chaucer, inexplicably, seems to have taken a six-month leave of absence from all documentation of history. The director is to be only mildly applauded for his attempts to “explain” Chaucer’s disappearance at the time by his inclusion in a jousting adventure; other aspects of Chaucer are contradictory. As a small example, in mentioning The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer seems to somehow expect William and his comrades to know of him: despite the fact that Chaucer was by no means a popular writer yet, and of course, most peasants like the three lowly squires he comes to accompany would not be expected to know how to read.
I must admit to having mixed feelings regarding this depiction of Chaucer. Chaucer, in his younger years, traveled Europe working various jobs such as page, diplomat, courtier, and various civil servant positions for noblemen. Indeed, in 1370, one might have randomly encountered a young Chaucer “trudging” down the road in France (although, probably not as naked and broke as in the film). Yet his rather crude and rambunctious nature (along with his ridiculous gambling addiction, an invention of the director) seems out of character for a man acquainted with the conventions of nobility and bureaucracy at the time, and one who would later become a widely respected writer, statesman, and even scientist.
However, Paul Bettany’s portrayal of Chaucer gains its strength from his witty and satirical promotions of von Liechtenstein, which are focused towards exciting commoner spectators rather than impressing nobles. Although they are of course “modernized” to appeal to the modern movie-viewer, the historical Chaucer was indeed known for his wit and satire that poked at the upper-classes of his time. Also, having already experienced many jobs involving speech craft and announcements, a short-stint as a noblemen’s herald does not actually seem entirely uncharacteristic of younger Chaucer. Of course, it is the absolute entertainment value of this wiry Chaucer that truly stands out, and perhaps because of this, inaccuracy with regards to the famous writer might unconsciously go more easily overlooked than, say, the ridiculous noble woman Jocelyn.
At this point, having identified and analyzed a great deal of altered aspects of history in A Knight’s Tale, it would be unfair to ignore the film’s most winning quality, in both entertainment and historical accuracy, which is the actual sport of the joust matches themselves. No film before or since has made such a valiant effort in excitedly and clearly depicting the action of a joust match in medieval times. This quality is mostly due to the fact that the film-makers at first attempted a number of methods to show this sport with special effects, all of which failed. They finally turned to the (much better) decision of bringing in actual contemporary Joust competitors and training horses for the match. As the sport has curiously survived through medieval societies and fairs into modern times, the filming of actual Joust in a real (albeit, planned) match is by far the most historically faithful aspect of the film.
Unfortunately, with faulty costuming, modern dialogue, suspiciously-altered or even radically-falsified characters, and a strange choice of soundtracks, A Knight’s Tale takes too many risks in “modernizing” history for the big screen. While ways of explaining the director’s motives and excuses for his alterations of historical fact have been offered, these lenient defenses fall incredibly short in the face of the long list of false portrayals in the movie. Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale seems to consider historical accuracy as an easily-sacrificed quality of American films. But would more respect and attention to historical fact have made this movie more enjoyable, or ruined it for the mainstream American audience? This question will most likely remain unanswered, as the “modernization” of history in film continues to be a popular trend.
With many recent films (such as the on-screen adaptation of Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings" or the newest wave of comic-based movies), movie-makers have finally begun to show more respect toward accurately representing source literature, appeasing the loyal fans of the original written works and in the end earning more positive criticism and attention. The question, then, that daunts the historian, and more importantly the history fan, is why don’t movie makers recognize the same need for accuracy with regards to historically-based motion pictures? History buffs are every bit as numerous as fan groups of literature, from the college professor or student currently dedicated to the era being portrayed onscreen, to the elderly veteran and war movie fan, to a young child intrigued with the distant past.
A Knight’s Tale, Helgeland, Brian. Columbia Pictures: Escape Artists/Fineskind prod. Copyright 2001, Columbia Pictures. Culver City, CA
Harvey, John Hooper. The Black Prince and his Age. Rowman & Littlefield: Totowa, NJ, 1976.
Singman, Jeffrey L. & McLean, Will. Daily Life in Chaucer’s England. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT. 1995.
Waugh, Scott L. England in the Reign of Edward III. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1991.
Goldberg, P.J.P. Medieval England: A Social History 1250-1550. Oxford University Press Inc.: New York, 2004.
Cripps-Day, Francis Henry. The History of the Tournament in England and in France. University of Chicago, Reprint. B. Quaritch: London, 1918.