Directed by Brian
Helgland (2001, Columbia Pictures)
Starring Heath Ledger, Mark Addy, Rufus Sewell, Shannyn Sossamon,
and Paul Bettany
A young squire illegally takes up his Knight's lance to joust after
his master dies on the field.
July 28th, 2001 in the Theatre
Shameless, tacky, sassy, absurd, and a whole bunch of other demeaning adjectives don't even begin to describe the style of this movie, but strangely enough, it is the characters that drive it, and make it a fairly enjoyable couple of hours.
The tone of the movie is set right away, to the tune of Queen's "We Will Rock You", chanted by the crowd, with hands clapping on the wooden fences and barriers of the jousting arena. The death of one of the jousters is taken for all the laughs it can get, until William Thatcher decides to take the armor of the knight to whom he was squired and take the jousting upon himself. The music lets up only to become the music of a hero, a young man taking on responsibility beyond his age and schooling, sacrificing himself for the others, and so on. The sap starts to flow...
But the movie gets better. William is really earnest in making a better life for himself and for the other two squires, who are left with nothing after their master dies. William wins the
jousting match, so they have food for the day. He takes the leftover winnings and plans to make a knight of himself with them.
Unfortunately, there is one rather large catch. Only those of noble blood can participate in the jousting, and William is a peasant. On the road, they meet a man who goes by the name of Chaucer, who writes poetry, and among other things, can fake documents proving his nobility. William goes by the name of Sir Alrich, and enters the next tournament, winning the swordplay competition, but losing the jousting match to Count Adhemar of France. The two become enemies, and worse, when Adhemar courts the woman William has fallen in love with.
William is ambitious, thick-headed, and very proud. But he knows he can make something better for himself, like his father told him he could, years and years ago, when he sent the boy to become a squire, to lead a better life than he had. On the way, he picks up not only Chaucer, who makes funny and long-winded speeches every time "Alrich" goes into the courtyard, but also a cute female blacksmith, who fashions some astounding armor for him, which resists dents, is so thin that it feels light, so that he doesn't feel a thing when he is hit (stainless steel? Possibly. Although it is heavier than regular steel, it can be made much thinner, so can appear to be lighter. Or maybe it's magic steel!).
But he is drawn to a woman whose face he barely caught a glimpse of, Lady Jocelyn, who won't even tell him her name. She knows he is different; he won't promise to win the tournament in her name, for one thing, and he doesn't appear to want her as a trophy. He knows how to respect people, something the "higher-bred" don't really know. Unfortunately, he is so upset about Adhemar that he snaps at her one day after the tournament, making them both feel terrible. It takes days and days of letter writing, writing that is done by Chaucer and the others in committee with William, to win her back. But by then, Alrich has won so many tournaments that he is feeling Noble, himself. He starts making demands on her, and finally tells her that he will win the next tournament in her name. Big mistake...
She tells him that he must prove his love by losing the current tournament. He doesn't understand it, and struggles with himself to sit still and take all the blows he can, losing match after match after match. Finally, Jocelyn is convinced of his love, and sends her hand maiden to tell him to win the tournament for her. Conveniently, it is explained that William can win the tournament if he wins every match from now onwards. The look on his face, trying to figure out "women" is just hilarious!
The reason Alrich is winning all the tournaments is because Adhemar was called away to war in France. By the end, however, we all know that the two will have to face off. But the World Jousting Championships are being held in London, and
William goes in search of his father, who is old, blind, but still alive. They have a wonderful reunion, but Adhemar had followed him, and exposes him as a peasant. He is arrested and put on public display in irons.
At one point in the competitions, every opponent started withdrawing when it was ascertained that they were to face Prince Edward, future King of England, in disguise. William refused to withdraw, in the name of his honor, and the two went head to head. Edward respected that, and is extremely grateful, for he desperately wanted to joust, but as Royalty, could not. He only
realized later why William did what he did. More honor than most knights, but they were both disguised as something they were not. Edward sees the honor in William, and sees the love William's friends have for him, and so releases him, repaying the favour. Finally, he Knight's William.
Adhemar is so angry that he makes his weapon deadly, instead of sporting. After the first blow, William is nearly incapacitated. But after seeing his father in the stands, and the love of his life (with whom he shared the night earlier) with him, he has his squires strap the lance to his arm, and manages to unhorse Adhemar at last, winning the tournament.
By this time, the plotting is way over the top, the bad guy is shown to be way too evil, and even with a limp arm, William manages to get off his horse and hug his love, holding her in a firm embrace, dancing around, and so on.
The music was an interesting mix of contemporary songs, such as "The Boys are Back in Town", and others, and more traditional medieval style scoring. Everything was appropriate, down to the Grand Hero Music when William does something big and dramatic. I liked the ballroom dance, with interesting moves, changing over from a classic partner square-dance type to more modern club style dancing with an edge. William and Jocelyn looked like teens at a high school dance more than mature medieval Nobles.
The comedy was hit and miss. It was absurd most of the time, which was good, because the movie really didn't want to take itself seriously. Mostly, the comedy is presented in the form of the squires, the naked Chaucer (lost in gambling too many times), and the blacksmith (was this movie sponsored by Nike?). Several times, the scenes made everyone in the theatre burst out at its absurdity, and that was a good thing, I think. The banter between just about everybody in William's entourage was terrific.
I found the jousting was quire boring, and even when I figured out the scoring, thanks to Count Adhemar's explanations, I didn't really enjoy it. I liked more the
characterizations. I was sure that Chaucer would betray him, or that his idiot squire would make some grand mistake. But I really liked Roland, the other squire, who ended up sewing him a tunic out of tent material, and insisted that he learn to dance.
The story could have been better, but the presentation was pretty good, and the characters were normally enjoyable to watch. Unfortunately, the climax was not that climactic, and William turned into an idiot when he became victor too often, letting his ego swell. But there was still a lot to like about this movie.