Historical Review: A Knight’s Tale; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

A Knight’s Tale is a purposeful blend of modern and medieval. The director, Brian Helgeland, made several choices to modernize what has often been considered a bland and drab period to make it more appealing to modern audiences while still getting some historical details and situations correct.

He said he tried to bring the middle ages to the audience rather than force the audience into the middle ages. Some have ruthless criticized this movie’s accuracy especially considering they play modern rock music as if the trumpeters themselves were playing it. A Knight’s Tale gets a few things right, however, and even when wrong, it still gets some things close to how they would have been.

The Good

After the opening “we will rock you” scene it’s hard to accept this movie captures any authentic history but it gets a lot of the little things right. The general raucous attitude of the commoners, particularly Wat, was quite the norm. The views of social status between the nobles and commoners were captured fairly well outside of the improbable main plot of a commoner becoming a knight.

The name Ulrich von Liechtenstein was not created out of thin air, Liechtenstein was a medieval author who wrote on chivalry and jousting. In his writings, Liechtenstein was a chivalrous knight who was unmatched at jousting and was a shining example of chivalry. Sounds an awful lot like William, the main character who borrows the name.

drawing of the real Ulrich von Lichtenstein. inspiration for the fake name of William/
Drawing of the real Ulrich von Lichtenstein, the inspiration for the fake name of William

Finally, a lot of the little things are fairly well done. The Black Prince was almost universally loved and respected, and his character holds great respect in the movie as he would have in real life. William is fairly eloquent for a commoner however the personal relationships and crass behavior at times would be quite normal, as well as depending on loyal friends to defend you in the stocks.

Chaucer’s character is debatable, and his involvement in this type of activity might be questioned, but if there was going to be a moving herald able to speak to the nobility and commoner with equal eloquence it would have been Chaucer.

Some of the armor, while falling in different periods, is accurately represented, and the inclusion of customized jousting armor was a welcomed sight rather than sticking all of the competitors in full suits of armor.

The Bad

While the attitudes of the commoners were fairly accurate, the language was a jarring mix of old and new. Words such as yay and nay are mixed in with modern sarcastic remarks having no meaning in the middle ages. This was an attempt to appeal to the modern audience, but it occasionally falls flat in scenes such as the one where Wat corrects Jocelyn calling a lance a stick by saying “It’s called a Lance… Hellooooo?” phrasing firmly grounded in the 2000’s.

Though to be fair, we would likely need subtitles if the movie was shot with exactly accurate period dialogue and dialect.

the earlier battle of Poitiers
The earlier battle of Poitiers

The date is not openly stated in the movie, but various rulers and events place it around 1370. Given this date, a lot of aspects are borrowed from earlier or later periods. The armor, while well done, is mostly from several decades/centuries later. One of the battles that count Adhemar is involved in when he is pulled away from the tournaments is the battle of Poitiers, involving the Black Prince, but decades before the events in the movie.

The Ugly

Even when accounting for how the director attempted to modernize the middle ages there are some downright ugly representations in the movie. The modern music is fun, but having the characters, singing/mouthing along pulls them out of the middle ages rather than bringing them to the modern audience.

The character of Jocelyn is full of historical flaws. While Kate, as a commoner and independent blacksmith (an uncommon but not impossible job for a woman) could act on her own and speak her mind it simply wasn’t as easy for noble women. They were oppressed during this period and were expected to be mostly quiet and reserved, especially in public. Jocelyn is fairly outspoken and sticks out, though this is certainly against the grain, it can be an example of showing attempts at social progress.

The outfits of Jocelyn are quite bizarre, and even those not familiar with medieval fashion must have noticed the various ones throughout the film. Almost every outfit had no place in the medieval world and seemed to come from different times and cultures of the world.

Medieval fashion was drab at times but also had periods of crazy and wild fashion that could have been utilized. On top of the bizarre choices, they tended to be far less modest than traditional women’s clothes of the period.

The dancing scene quickly turns ridiculous, which can be enjoyable or pull you too far away from the medieval scene.
The dancing scene quickly turns ridiculous, which can be enjoyable or pull you too far away from the medieval scene.

Finally, the plot of the movie, though making for a good story, is hard to accept in any historical setting. The movie hammers home the differences between commoners and nobles but still doesn’t do justice to the improbability of pretending to be a knight.

William would have probably faced death and not just the stocks for pretending to be a noble, and the amount of tournaments should have been enough for others to discover his faulty lineage especially as he became the premier competitor fairly quickly and out of nowhere.

This is not at saying that I do not enjoy the plot or the movie. Knowing the truth and fallacies in the film, it is an all-around enjoyable experience. The atmosphere created by the “we will rock you” around the stadium is historical silliness, but it sure does get you ready to watch some great jousting.

By William McLaughlin for War History Online

William Mclaughlin

William Mclaughlin is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE