'Hey Andrew', said someone. 'Why do you only review films that you don't like all that much?'
'Because', I replied, 'It is hard to find interesting ways of saying 'That was a nice, unpretentious film which entertainingly achieved what it set out to do. '
A Knights Tale was a nice, unpretentious film which entertainingly achieved what it set out to do.
It doesn't have the wit, flare or inventiveness of The Princess Bride -- but then, what does? But its tone greatly resembles that of Goldman's movie. Like Princess Bride, it combines ludicrous anachronisms, witty dialogue and far too much melodrama into a world which nevertheless carries total conviction. A world in which the retainers of a tourney knight chant 'He's blonde/he's pissed/he'll see you in the list!' is clearly on the same continent as one where court miracle workers talk with New York Jewish accents.
Will Thatcher, like Westley, transcends cool. He's the sort of player-character that every gamer wants to be when he grows up. He is not a farm boy, but a peasant, a knight's retainer who takes over his lord's role at a jousting tournament and finds out that he is rather good at it. Inventing a noble identity for himself, he travels to all the tournaments and wins fame, fortune, the love of a beautiful woman, et cetera.
Everything pans out exactly as you would expect. We have a mysterious figure, the worlds-greatest-jouster who is actually a disguised Prince; we have an evil Frenchman who becomes our heroes greatest rival and a climactic joust where the villain tries to do a Laertes with his lance point. At one point, Wil has to learn courtly dancing to avoid making a fool of himself at the stately ball. It's a tribute to the film's self-belief that we treat this as a natural development of the plot, not a ponderous, post-Titanic cliché.
The film's most ostentatious tricks are, in fact, the most detachable. The modern rock-anthem soundtrack, which looks like a late addition, is neither very funny nor very intrusive. I didn't whoop with amusement when the formal medieval dance got taken over by a disco soundtrack, but neither did I think that it undermined my belief in the movie. (The one thing I cannot abide is Dino De Laurentis / Adam West 'camp', movies which draw their attention to their unreality at every step of the way, and ask you join them in having contempt for their subject matter or self-contempt for enjoying it. There was not a whiff of that here.)
But it's the more deeply embedded absurdities which carry the movie. The central metaphor is that jousting is a spectator sport, somewhere between professional wrestling and that funny game the Americans call football. So we have medieval audiences painting their faces in the colours of their favourite coats of arms; people placing bets and reading the 'tournament results'; a world championships and best of all, heralds who behave like wrestling promoters. (Our hero acquires a poet-retainer called, er, Geoff Chaucer. 'These knights are much more fun than those dreary pilgrims you used to hang out with', says his wife.) And just occasionally, we have surreal flashes, like the (female) blacksmith engraving Nike ticks on the Wil's armour. 'It's the mark of my trade', she explains.
The jokes would not work if the director hadn't gone to some trouble to locate the film in a recognizably medieval setting. Hollywood cod medieval, of course, but not the amorphous fantasy land of First Knight or even Excalibur. We may not be able to quite accept that someone called Chaucer is quite so contemporary with someone called the Black Prince, but the establishing shots of London, the tents around the Battle of Poitiers and the tall hats of the women in the audience all look authentically like illustrations in The Ladybird Book of Knights.
What A Knights Tale has spotted is that, if you fundamentally take your characters seriously; and if the audience essentially likes those character, then they will accept any stupidity or melodramatic excess. Put another way: the right kind of silliness gives the audience permission to believe in material that they would laugh out of court in a movie that was taking itself seriously. Or, put a third way: there is too much pretentiousness in the movies these days, and its nice to relax and have fun.
It's also pleasant, post X-Clones and Spider-Apes, to see a movie that doesn't have to spend hours burdening the audience with a massive baggage of back-story. The premise is established in a couple of lines ('there's this peasant, right, and he wants to be a knight') and this frees up some space in the script for us to actually get to know the main characters. I guess that Knights Tale gives us as 15 minutes of the three protagonists arguing about whether they should dress William up as a knight, and trying to train him, before the plot proper starts. It's a far cry from Amidala stepping down the gangplank and a plot exploding in her face.
Only one thing annoyed me about the movie. It appears that, rather at the last minute, someone decided to impose a daddy-guilt therapy plot on top of what was working perfectly well as a medieval road movie with a love interest. We are as much as half way into the film before, via an excruciating flashback, we are introduced to William's old Dad, and shown how the boy William came to be apprenticed to a Knight. Worse, much worse, are the sequences of William as a little-boy-lost having 'Can I be a knight' chats with Daddy. If you believe in yourself, you can do anything, says his father. Oh, god.
Because of this, the final joust is interpreted in terms of 'proving yourself to your father' psychobabble, and the movie is given a wholly spurious cyclical structure. (The Old Blind Father took Son across the water (yeah, across the water) to give him over to Knightly Foster Father who will Train him to be a Jedi, sorry, Knight: but what actually makes him a knight is 'following his feet' back home and being reunited with his Dad.)
Fortunately, this sub Freudian clap-trap doesn't get sufficiently out of control to wreck the movie. The real emotional climax comes where it should: in the male bonding scene in which the disguised Prince Edward discovers his erstwhile opponent in the stocks (for faking patents of nobility) and ennobles him on the spot because he is so brave and sporting.
But really, we should burn Joseph Campbell and all Hollywood scriptwriting books. And while we're at it, could we leave it a century or two before listening to another cover version of 'We are the champions'?