A Knight's Tale (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"Dude, where's my armor?" 

There were quite a few critics that objected to the anachronistic approach taken by this fairy tale approach to the Middle Ages. For one thing, the crowd does the wave and chants "we will rock you". For another, Geoffrey Chaucer travels along with the hero as his apologist and promoter, and he's a pretty thinly disguised version of Vince McMahon. Chaucer's intros before the matches reminded me of the hilarious introductions for Christ and Satan before their boxing match on South Park. 

A big South Park welcome for hay-sooce .... "el savior-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-"  ....... 

Chaucer even said something afterwards like "thank you, you've been a great crowd, I'll be here all week, be sure to tip your serving-wench"

L-l-l-l-l-l-l-let's get ready to joust!

Hey, Shakespeare himself placed a clock in Julius Caesar. At least in this goofy film, they created the anachronisms purposely, and their purpose makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. How do you find a way to tell young modern audiences what it was like to attend a medieval joust, or more accurately, to participate mentally in the romanticized version of the jousts which have been popularized in literature? Why, kids, it was like stomping your feet at a high school football game. Oh, I get it.

I'm afraid that I'm in a position where I can't possibly justify criticizing this technique. You see, I once wrote an Arthurian tale called Dancing Before the Glass, in which Merlin, an inveterate grifter and a compulsive gambler, used his backward life to place winning bets on the jousts. (Living backward, he had already been in tomorrow, and knew the results.) Merlin's success was a subject of infinite amazement to the jousting geeks who made their own bets based upon the published statistics. They had access to information as detailed as that produced today by the Elias Sports Bureau about baseball.

Generally, I don't object to anachronism of speech and music, either. Plenty of people damned Kevin Costner for not using a proper English accent to play Robin Hood. Frankly, they failed to consider the possibility that Costner's accent may duplicate Robin's own as closely as the speech of any modern day member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Nobody else in the film, nor anyone who has even played in a Robin Hood film, to my knowledge, has ever tried to duplicate English in the time of the Plantagenets. If they did, you wouldn't get a real kick out of the movie, trust me. 

Strangely, nobody ever objects to a medieval film with an orchestral score, even though there were no symphonic orchestras in the Dark Ages, and most of the instruments had not been invented yet. What's different about using rock? Besides, rock scores may sell some CD's. You think a lot of kids stand in line to get the latest recordings of a cappella madrigals? "Oh, man, did you hear that new Ars Antiqua album with 'Sweet, Honeysucking Bee'? Whoa!" 

Is that pandering? I suppose so, but it is the movie business, after all. When a good little director makes money for investors, they let him make more movies. Besides, there is a point. Jousting champions were the first rock stars. OK, it's not a profound point, but it is a perspective.

As far as English folklore, it has always reflected the mores and vocabulary of the time in which it was written, not the time in which it is placed. To quote myself  about a decade ago, "Anachronism is a common thread throughout the Arthurian cycle. While some authors of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance attempted to locate the story in the time of the 'real' Arthur, the world they wrote about was their own, featuring a unified kingdom, chivalry, feudalism, knights-errant, elaborate castles, jousting competitions, the domination of Holy Mother Church, and the conception of courtly love." (My complete justification for my own ludicrous anachronisms is cited below in the sidebar, for reference.)

I think what I'm leading to here with all this verbiage is that A Knight's Tale is completely consistent with the English literary tradition of writing about earlier historical times in the speech of, and with the values of, the author -  not those of the subject.

"OK, Scoop, enough bullshit", you must be thinking, "we'll grant your point for the moment. Ignoring that, is the freakin' movie any good, or not?"

Yeah, it's OK. It's basically a corny, mass-audience film which aims at the younger set. I thought it would be awful, but it wasn't. It has superior production values, and is basically a good time. I smiled a lot while I was watching it. 

If you like a piece of fluff now and then, it delivers some swashbuckling, some "Rocky"-like inspirational moments, some WWF hype, some sex, some rock 'n roll, and some laughs. I don't see where these things are so very bad. The script has a good heart. It teaches kids the value of nobility and honor. It's harmless. 

The film's greatest weakness is that all of the originality lies in the gimmicks. The script is the same-old-same-old knights & ladies fol-de-rol, the ending is pure Hollywood crapola, and everything about it is conventional except the anachonisms.

In other words, the film makes its own rules. You decide whether you like them. I thought it was OK, as long as you don't expect it to be "The Lion in Winter"



male: Paul Bettany, as Chaucer, wandered around much of the movie naked. His buns may be seen in two scenes as well as in a deleted scene.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • Full-length director commentary

  • 11 mini featurettes

  • deleted scenes

  • "making-of" special


The afterword to "Dancing Before the Glass". Some notes on history and the legend, having nothing much to do with this movie.


It is not certain whether there was a historical Arthur. The best two proofs of his existence are as follows:

  1. The Welsh author Nennius, writing his Historia Britonnum in the late eighth century, represented Arthur as a Christian knight who led the armies of the British "kings" against the Saxon "kings" of Kent. He did not refer to Arthur as a king, but rather as a dux bellorum, a kind of compromise choice as supreme general of their consolidated armies. Elsewhere, Arthur was pictured as "the little prince of the Silures", a tribe from South Wales.
  2. Giraldus Cambrensis, in his De Principis Instructione, claimed to have been present when Henry II opened up Arthur's tomb in Glastonbury Abbey. Bulfinch picks up the story: "a leaden cross let into his tombstone, with the inscription in rude Roman letters 'here lies buried the famous King Arthur, in the island Avalonia'". There were bones and a sword in the grave.

The best refutations of the above are as follows:

  1. Gildas, writing in about 550, would have been Arthur's virtual contemporary. He wrote of the famous Battle of Mount Badon (one of the great Arthurian triumphs recounted in Nennius), but did not mention Arthur. Gildas would have been in his twenties when Arthur fought the "last battle" against Mordred on Camlann Plain, yet there was no mention of that epic struggle in a work written only a decade later. That absence is pretty suspicious.
  2. Nennius was, to say the least, a credulous fellow. He claimed that Arthur slew 960 men in one day in single hand-to-hand combat. That's one per minute for sixteen hours. Meanwhile, the swirling hordes never surrounded and overwhelmed him. You might say that the story was already taking on certain mythic overtones. Perhaps, in Merlin's wanderings through time, he brought back an Excalibur that was really an AK-47. If you believe this story, please contact me through the publisher, as I have some swampland I'd like to sell you. Call me an old-fashioned cuss, but I'm inclined to discredit any claims that Nennius was authoring objective history.
  3. As for the claim of Giraldus, I don't know what to think. Historians of that age seemed to use allegorical truth as a substitute for facts. In addition, Giraldus knew that the king would be cognizant of what he wrote, and he was vain enough to prefer that certain fashion statement he achieved by having his head attached to his shoulders. To me, the inscription isn't sensible. Why mention the place of burial? Wasn't it obvious? They did sometimes do silly things like that, but it sounds to me like a deliberate attempt to validate the legend. But ... maybe. Even if the whole story is true, they might simply have discovered a hoax perpetrated by just about anyone in the intervening centuries.


There are various other cases of fiction posing as history. The most important is Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, completed about 1136, which first assembled the written groundwork for the fabulous Arthur later lionized by Malory and the balladeers. Geoffrey was one of the most valuable sources of material for many writers of great distinction, Shakespeare among them. He is also a strong candidate for the dishonor of being the single worst historian in the annals of humanity. He presented the obviously fantastical as factual, he couldn't keep his own "facts" straight from page to page, and he gave no thought to whether his chronology was plausible. Some suggest that he also told a wee fib about the existence of a vernacular source book that he claimed to have translated into Latin. Most likely he just created a compendium of the oral legends of the day, and fabricated some additional details of his own.

  • His was the first written source to give us Mordred, Merlin, and Guenevere. In that earliest version, Guenevere and Mordred were the lovers who betrayed Arthur, and they went so far as to sit boldly as king and queen whilst Arthur was on a campaign against Rome.
  • Lancelot and the Round Table are completely fictional embellishments added by others to Geoffrey's core story. They are romantic and purely literary fancies, appearing soon after Geoffrey's version in works by other authors, but having no ground in fact or even in earlier myth.
  • Geoffrey did not mention the sword in the anvil, either. In his rendition, Uther's death created a power vacuum, and the powerful bishops needed somebody to rally the Britons against the marauding Saxons. They chose the fifteen year old Arthur because he was Uther's son, and because he was well respected for his courage, generosity, and innate goodness. Would that our own age could produce such enlightened selection techniques.
  • Morgan was called Anna in Geoffrey's version. Geoffrey identified her as the mother of Gawain and Mordred, and as the wife of King Lot(h). In typical fashion, however, he couldn't quite decide whether she was the sister of Arthur or Arthur's uncle, King Aurelius. It didn't seem to dawn on him that Aurelius' sister would also be Uther's. At any rate, Mordred was either Arthur's nephew or his first cousin. At that point in the story's evolution, there was no intimation of incest between Arthur and Anna.
  • Geoffrey was the first published author to mention Merlin by that name, but some of the key elements of Merlin's life were drawn directly from Nennius' story of the boy, Ambrosius, who demonstrated astounding precocity in the court of King Vortigern. Geoffrey seems to have concocted his Merlin from a drib of Nennius, a drab of biblical legend, a dash of pagan legend, a smidgen of oral history, and more than a pinch of his own fertile imagination.

Most of the legend that we are most familiar with, of course, comes from three major sources and hundreds of minor ones. The major ones are T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The minor ones include movies like Camelot and The Sword in the Stone, both derived from White's writing, and scores of French and English poetasters from the twelfth century onward. Even such luminaries as Spenser, Dante, and Milton have added their onions to the Arthurian stew. No two versions agree on all the details. 

Anachronism and myth are common threads throughout the cycle. While the authors of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance attempted to locate the story in the time of the "real" Arthur, the world they wrote about was their own, featuring a unified kingdom, chivalry, feudalism, knights-errant, elaborate castles, jousting competitions, the domination of Holy Mother Church, and the conception of courtly love.

The time of the "historical" Arthur, sixth century England, was not unified, and was not "England". The island was most often called Albion, and Arthur's portion of it was still called by the Roman name, Britannia. If the story were told with complete accuracy, both the Angles and the Saxons, the progenitors of modern England, would be the "bad guys", continentals who were attempting to wrest an ever-greater chunk of the territory traditionally held by the Britons. As legend (or pseudo-history) would have it, the Saxons were first invited into England by Vortigern, about thirty years after the Roman withdrawal, as a last resort defense against the invading Picts. The strategy seemed to work, as the Pictish threat abated, but the Saxons had no intention of going home after their original purpose had been achieved. The Arthur legend sprang from the noble but doomed attempt of the native tribes, freshly liberated from Rome, to keep their homeland free from a new foreign influence. The "Britons" tried to expel the Saxons. It is, in fact, the Welsh and the people of Britanny who are the Britons, and who represent Arthur's closest modern kinfolk, both biologically and linguistically.

England, such as it was, had no king, or dozens of them, depending on how liberally you will extend your definition of that particular word. If there had been a king of kings, or "Pendragon", he could have been called Arthur, but could just as likely have been named Dogbreath the Hopelessly Inbred or Salmon P. Chase.

The fabricators of the legend also chose to place twelfth and thirteenth century characters, with proto-Renaissance motivations, into barbaric post-Roman Albion. It was useful for them to invoke a time of dim antiquity because that technique let them introduce spiritual, mythical, and supernatural elements that were demonstrable falsehoods in their own time, but were nonetheless useful to the metaphor. They also had the characters speak in the High Language of their time, with no attempt to recreate the feel of sixth century life or language.

T.H. White really stretched the time paradox in his marvelous re-telling. He wrote about a sixth century warrior, to make twentieth century points (if you'll recall, Mordred is a pretty thinly-disguised Hitler), and did so with the vocabulary and traditions of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. He has one character (not time-traveling Merlin) refer to an event that happened in 1360, and Arthur meets Robin Hood, who is generally placed in the reigns of Richard and John, therefore between 1189 and 1216. Mr. White, consistent with the good-humored tone of his entire piece, conceded that it happened "whenever (it) happened".

Even with the background as fanciful as it is, I still feel a little guilty about some of the ways I have stretched the operating restrictions on my prosaic license. (Damn thing's about to expire, too. I hope they renew it.) For example, the word "bagpipes" would be more appropriate after the fourteenth century, and sundials can't be as accurate as I pretend. Arthur's time probably had no jousting tournaments at all, let alone one with two-dollar windows, thus my tilts are a chimerical pastiche. There was no feudalism either, although I've allowed some to creep in. Consistently inconsistent, some aspects of the story are reasonably accurate fictionalizations of the sixth century, some invoke the age of chivalry, and other elements are complete contemporizations. What can I say, after I say I'm sorry? When Mordred calls Lancelot "big guy", you just have to assume that he said whatever the equivalent was in whatever time he said it. Believe me, you don't want to read it in the parlance of 536. Let's face it, they didn't even use the word "the" in the Old Welsh that Mordred would have spoken. If you want to read an accurate account of that time in the original dialect, you are in need of a rest. And a life.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: No consensus, but an average of about  two and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 1.5/4, Apollo 64.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 57% positive, about the same from the elite crew.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.8, Apollo users 71/100. 
  • With their dollars ... it did $56 million on a $41 million budget. It was expected to do more, having been released to a blockbuster-level 3000 screens.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, the film is a C, a pleasant, mindless experience. Just shut off your brain cells, and let it do its thing.

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