Twenty short years ago, audiences were treated to Brian Helgeland’s vastly underrated medieval sports drama, A Knight’s Tale.
No, really. It’s been twenty years! God, I’m old.
The film was a modest hit, grossing $117.5 million worldwide against a $65 million budget, despite tepid reviews from critics who couldn’t get past the numerous anachronisms knowingly sprinkled throughout the production — the film opens with a rendition of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” for cripes’ sake! And features a dance sequence set to David Bowie’s “Golden Years.” Clearly, Helgeland wasn’t aiming for historical accuracy here, people!
Despite its splashy and well-executed joust sequences, Rocky-inspired storyline, and surprisingly tender conclusion, A Knight’s Tale, for whatever reason, remains little more than a footnote in the annals of Hollywood — a would-be blockbuster that failed to catch the public psyche at the time of its release and instead swiftly crash-landed in the $5 and under bins at Wal-Mart.
Well, to all those hedge-born cretins who dismissed Helgeland’s perfectly entertaining film, I spit on your soul! A Knight’s Tale deserves mention alongside the best summer movies of the early naughties. Here is an exciting, briskly paced, well-acted, and perfectly entertaining film worthy of greater discussion. The words “cult following” are practically emblazoned on its DVD cover.
Plus, more than anything, it’s got one helluva Heath Ledger performance.
That’s right. Seven years before The Dark Knight made him a household name, Ledger’s star was on the rise after appearances in the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You in 1999 and Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War drama The Patriot the summer prior. Yet, it was the one-two punch of Monster’s Ball and A Knight’s Tale that cemented Ledger as an actor to watch, even if it took a hike up Brokeback Mountain and a monumental Joker performance before audiences really appreciated his immense talent.
Not to boast, but I was the only one of my friends who, after departing an empty theater on opening night, believed Ledger had what it took to rival the greats. I believed it so much that I sat my ass in another empty theater a year later to watch The Four Feathers — partly because the film was scored by James Horner, mostly because I like war films, but also because I was curious to see the next step in Ledger’s career. Yeah, I saw the talent and foresaw a bright, Brad Pitt-like future for the young man.
It all began with A Knight’s Tale in which the actor’s charisma is on full display as a poor squire who takes up his deceased master’s arms and poses as a noble in order to compete in a series of jousting tournaments. Right from the opening scene, where Ledger’s character first appears with golden dreadlocks and paper hastily stuffed up his nose, it’s clear who the star of the movie is; and the actor’s natural charisma is on full display. By the film’s end, when William Thatcher casts off his armor to go head-to-head with Rufus Sewell’s snarling Count Adhemar, we’re with him every step of the way because Ledger has made us care about this embattled commoner. He’s a hero worth cheering for — an underdog who is none too smart, but cunning enough to win over Shannyn Sossamon’s heart; and fearless enough to inspire loyalty from his supporting cohorts.
A Knight’s Tale would propel supporting actor (and scene-stealer) Paul Bettany to stardom — A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Wimbledon, The Da Vinci Code, and all of those Marvel and WandaVision shows — while Ledger would go on to star in duds The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, The Order, Lords of Dogtown and The Brothers Grimm before Brokeback Mountain returned him to prominence and earned the young talent an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Clearly, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with the man, who boasted Leonardo DiCaprio’s looks, Mel Gibson’s charm, and Joaquin Phoenix’s fearlessness; or maybe Ledger was purposefully playing against type, eager to show off his natural talent. Either way, it wasn’t until The Dark Knight in 2008 that Ledger’s abilities were recognized by the masses, and by then it was too late.
So, on this day of our Lord, May 11, 2021, let us give thanks to A Knight’s Tale and respect the would-be blockbuster that should have made Heath Ledger a superstar.