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[whitespace] 'A Knight's Tale' Better Armor-Plated Than Never: Heath Ledger dons some heavy iron for 'A Knight's Tale.'

Photograph by Egon Endrenyi

Period of Ajoustment

20th-century arena rock enlivens 'A Knight's Tale'

By Richard von Busack

EVERY SUMMER film season ought to have its one great dumb pleasure, and A Knight's Tale is this year's. It's the most winningly silly and original idea of all the seasonal extravaganzas, just as Gladiator seemed to be last year, before it became clear how heavy that film's spirit was.

Director (Payback) and former scriptwriter (L.A. Confidential) Brian Helgeland told me that the only thing that's taken seriously in A Knight's Tale is the jousting.

A Knight's Tale has the flippant yet literate spirit of the old Errol Flynn action movies; and in this typically nerve-wracked summer movie season, it seems relaxed and confident. It doesn't deal with anything more serious than the rise of William Thatcher (Heath Ledger), a poor but ambitious former squire into the ranks of the jousting champions of the 1300s

With credentials identifying him as "Sir Ulrich of Lichtenstein," forged by the hand of Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), William climbs way through the circuit. William is a Palooka--an exuberant boy who has great aim with a lance and supernatural ability to stay in the saddle after being clobbered. Ledger plays him as a friendly jock who would be insufferably handsome if there was any trace of arrogance in him.

Unfortunately, in the wrap-up, the film goes awry: William is exposed as a peasant fraud by our villain, Rupert Sewell, perfect in the Basil Rathbone vein. I'm afraid our knight has an old blind father who hasn't encountered his long lost son in years.

The film's class card would have been better played with the burgeoning love between William and the low-born but comely female blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser), who does Willian's armor for him. It's hard not to wish William would notice Kate, since the princess (newcomer Shannyn Sossamon) kittenishly insists on a pointless ordeal for our hero to suffer, as proof of his love.

We Will Rock You

HELGELAND AMUSES by overlaying '70s stadium-rock music on the crowds--something to drive the medieval fans nuts. Presuming that the crowds at a jousting match would be in about the same mood as the crowds at a football game today, Helgeland gives them the kind of music you hear at a sports event, particularly Queen's "We Are the Champions." After an especially good joust, the crowd does "the wave."

I could die happy never hearing "We Are the Champions" again, but I think the music works. The images of knights in armor reflect the ridiculous pre-Raphaelite daydreaming idea that was so much a part of the mood of '70s rock.

(Almost every boy in America wanted to grow up to be a member of Led Zeppelin, but what Led Zeppelin wanted to be were medieval swordsman--at least, according to the fantasy sequences in the concert film The Song Remains the Same and the lyrics in Led Zeppelin 4.)

At a courtly dance William, not a dancer, is asked to demonstrate a native dance. He improvises, and Bowie's suave "Golden Years" breaks out. We're prepped for the anachronism, thanks to the modish hair, velvet clothes and makeup of the courtiers. Joceyln has a tangled coif and a couple of stripes of paint on her cheek that make her look pleasingly like the punk-rock singer Siouxie Banshee.

Helgeland justified the rock as part of the film's "rock & roll attitude." He continued, "The arena-rock angle came when I understood what I was writing was a youth story. The music goes with questioning the powers that be."

The director got the idea for a jousting movie after he'd been fascinated by a book on the subject. "I didn't have a story, and I gave it up. Later, I started out making a film about a screenwriter who wanted to be a director. Suddenly, I remembered that in tournament jousting you had to be of noble birth to compete. It occurred to me that this was the way to tell the story: a peasant who wanted to be a knight was the same thing as a screenwriter who wanted to be a director. But A Knight's Tale isn't a send-up. I like a lot of the old movies, I just wanted to stand them up on their head."

Helgeland's research fleshes the film out beyond the Monty Python and the Holy Grail level, as do the film's costly-looking sets (the Czech countryside looks uncannily like the oak-forested country around Chico where Flynn's version of Robin Hood was filmed) and the paraphernalia of the contests.


The uncredited stars of the films are the horses, true chargers, photographed to look big enough to muscle around Clydesdales. Even the villain's horse is a villain. "They're Kladruby horses," Helgeland said. "Czech carriage horses. The Russians stopped the breeding, but there was a breeder there that kept the line going. We animated a little steam coming out of the nostrils so they'd look more like locomotives."

Between the beasts and the lances, A Knight's Tale seems perilous as well as frivolous. "It was dangerous," Helgeland said. "We tried to do it all first on blue screen with the actors riding sawhorses on a platform, but that looked fake. We had to ask our stunt coordinator how to solve this. After some study he said, 'Let's really joust and shoot it.' We hired the guys that ran the jousting show at Excalibur, and two Renaissance Faire guys from France."

The suits of armor were often real. "You can tell the plastic armor from the metal armor in the film--the plastic armor is on the actors who fell off their horse; the metal armor on them if they didn't fall off. Some of the armor is a straight marriage of metal armor with sports armor--football padding. The lances were built with a weak spot so we'd know where they'd break. They were stuffed with uncooked pasta to make the splinters."

A Steadicam operator rode behind the jousters for the close-ups. "There's wire work in it, too," Helgeland said, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "A wire rigger rigged the steadicam operator, and we had him fly behind the horse at 30 miles an hour wearing a crash helmet. We were really nervous that someone was going to get hurt, but it was all mendable--just ribs."

The bracing horseplay and Helgeland's deft gags may make A Knight's Tale an unusual kind of hit. Best of all, the film isn't too Joseph Campbell-y about what jousting and knights in armor represent. One of the finer lines: the princess is asked what she thinks about jousting as a sport, and she replies, "It's abrupt."

Helgeland enjoys the charges and the collisions for their own sake, instead of how they relate to the woes of the modern world. It's only in the last third--where A Knight's Tale goes tenderhearted and soulful--that the exhilaration wears off, and you're back in the world of mundane summer movies.

A Knight's Tale (PG-13; 132 min.), directed and written by Brian Helgeland, photographed by Richard Greatrez and starring Heath Ledger, Rufus Sewell and Shannyn Sossamon, opens May 11 valleywide.

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From the May 10-16, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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