It’s 2001, and one of the best films of the year is also one that on paper, sounded impossible. A medieval underdog story that purposefully included modern touches such as kickass arena rock, tossed safety and green screens to the wind for visceral action sequences, and was headlined by a cast of young actors probably didn’t feel the executives at Columbia Pictures with much hope for their investment.
But the end result was a masterpiece of fun and excitement. A Knight’s Tale is one of those rare films that you never get tired of watching or cheering on whenever you see it on TV. It is an eclectic spectacle of action with real jousting, a soundtrack pulled from the best top 40 lists of the 1970s, and a cast whose chemistry is so organic that it deserves to be added to the periodic table as a brand new element.
There’s a story behind A Knight’s Tale that’s well worth experiencing, and now that it’s almost old enough to legally drink in the US of A, it’s time to celebrate one of the best movies of a terrific year in cinema.
Fake and safer jousting was scrapped for the real deal
Did you ever look at a scene in A Knight’s Tale where two competitors clad in heavy armour charged at one another and eventually resulted in an explosion of splinters being created? All of those dynamic jousting scenes were the real deal, as real-life jousting experts slammed into each other at full speed during shooting.
That eye for authenticity almost never made it into the film, as director Brian Helgeland and stunt coordinator Allan Graf tried alternative methods using Czech stuntmen, Hollywood trickery, and safer methods to create the illusion of jousting. None of it worked though, and in the end experts were needed. Even if Helgeland was scared that they’d wind up killing someone along the way.
“The guys we had couldn’t do it. So we had to find guys who could,” Helgeland explained to Movie Habit in a 2001 interview.
There are experts [on jousting]. We got these two guys who were working a French renaissance fair doing a jousting show and they actually break lances on each other and so we got them. And then we got — as dumb as it sounds — this guy and his partner who choreograph and run the jousting show at the Excalibur hotel in Las Vegas. They all came to Prague and those four guys do all of the jousting in the movie.
That really is the London Eye…sort of
While A Knight’s Tale does have a few errors present, one anachronism on display is very intentional. When William returns to his homeland, you can spot the London Eye in the background. Except that’s a replica of the British landmark, designed to be made from wood and apparently costing the production a whopping $500,000 to create.
There’s pasta in every lance explosion
As for those explosive lance blows in each jousting match? That’s thanks to at least one safety precaution that was taken. Helgeland and his crew knew that lances would break at some point, so they hollowed out the tips, filled the cavity with balsa wood splinters and linguine pasta. The actors were unleashed on each other, and the end result was a dynamic blast of wood splinters that helped create a realistic atmosphere for the intense jousting matches.
The arena rock soundtrack came from the film being set in the right decade and the wrong century
“The movie happens in 1372. So it’s the seventies, it’s just the wrong seventies,” Helgeland said about the heavy anthem rock soundtrack heard throughout A Knight’s Tale. While it’s initially jarring to see peasants in the Middles Ages driving their fists into a wooden barrier while singing along to Queen’s iconic “We Will Rock You,” it simply works wonderfully in the film due to it being a celebration of sport, life, and love.
According to Helgeland, that focus on identity, coming of age, and questioning the powers that be helped modernise it, as rock music perfectly embodied the rebellious nature of A Knight’s Tale.
Columbia Pictures really didn’t want to keep the end credits farting competition
The day has been won, William has been knighted, and he has thoroughly beaten his nemesis Count Ahemar in a duel so climatic that it left him with a lifelong case of Thatchernitus ringing about in his skull. What’s a merry band of misfits left to do? Celebrate the victory with ale, good food, and a farting contest of course.
Accessed right at the end credits, the showdown of trumpets (and one tiny bugle) almost never made it into the final cut, as Columbia Pictures wasn’t exactly keen on seeing an improvised brown note concerto between Chaucer, Kate, Roland, and Wat, right after the company’s logo had been prominently displayed. Helgeland stuck to his guns though, refused to back down, and eventually managed to squeak in the fun little ending after executives gave up.
Presumably after lighting a match in the room.
Knights were the rock stars of their era
According to Helgeland, the production avoided dressing the cast up in tights and other accurate medieval clothing as that didn’t fit in with the style of the film and made it hard for the audience to relate to the characters. Costume designer Caroline Harris instead drew inspiration from The Rolling Stones circa the 1970s.
“You know, they got those shirts open and kinda blousy, Renaissance, Medieval — there’s all kinds of time periods going on. So yeah, we tried to make them look a little bit like rock stars,” Helgeland said.
The Monty Python connection
While it’s never explicitly stated, there is a Holy Grail connection to A Knight’s Tale. In one scene where William accidental rides into a church while on horseback, the foley team replicated the sound of hooves by recording coconut shells on a solid floor. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that film replaced horses with squires who would use coconut shells to mimic the sound of a horse trotting about the place.
There’s no confirmation though if these coconuts were obtained from African or European swallows.
Having filmed in the Czech Republic for several weeks, A Knight’s Tale had no shortage of extras who looked the part for scenes that required peasants in the background. The only problem? None of the extras spoke or understood English, which led to some unique problems and solutions. In one scene where William is victorious after a sword-fighting contest and Paul Bettany delivered a stirring speech, the audience was dead silent.
Fortunately Mark Addy prompted the crowd to cheer with a sneaky “YEAH”, a moment that was deemed funny enough to be kept in the film.
In the final minutes, A Knight’s Tale reaches its high point with one of the most clmatic duels of all time. Count Adhemar leads the competition, William has been seriously wounded and everything comes down to a single run between a black knight confident of his victory and an unarmoured opponent who finally embraces his identity.
Knocking his nemesis off his horse, the resulting scene might seem a bit…odd. There’s a good reason for that, as Adhemar’s fall is visualised in the count’s head. He’s caught in a moment in time, his own words have come back to haunt him and he literally witnesses his defeat at William’s injured hands, making for a more surreal ending to his reign of terror.
Geoff(rey) Chaucer was almost played by Drew Carey
Heath Ledger’s mug may have been on the poster for A Knight’s Tale, but Paul Bettany stole the show as Geoffrey Chaucer, a real-life figure who in the film ends up serving William as a gambling-addicted showboat with a talent for ring announcing. Bettany’s big break into the US movie industry (even if his first scene involved staring at his buttocks first before he had decent face-time according to the actor in the DVD commentary), the role almost went to a US comedian who had made a name for himself hosting a show where the points don’t matter.
“I remember, for the longest time they wanted Drew Carrey to play Geoffrey Chaucer,” Helgeland said. “I would say to them, “Nothing against Drew Carrey, but I don’t even know how to respond to that!” It would so take you out of the movie! And they think you’re turning down a great idea! Luckily, I could always say the jousting is the star of the movie — which I never thought was the truth, but you can say things like that to them and they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s right!”
Last Updated: January 7, 2021