One of Heath Ledger’s breakout hits, A Knight’s Tale is a medieval film for memory—a campy early 2000’s creation, the audience follows protagonist William (Heath Ledger) on his quest to become a great knight. A film which captures great acting, writing, music, and story-telling to combine it with historical anachronism in an always quaint manner and so the film is nothing if not amusing. But, for this review, we will not be spending much time examining such things as such details have already been mulled over ad nauseum by far too many critics.
Instead, what we will talk about is how it, as a new medieval text, says something about American imperialism today; because it is a rags-to-riches tale, the film reproduces bourgeois norms. From heteronormativity to class mobility (!), the optimistic Americana of the early 21st century is on full display. Situated just before the 9/11 terror attacks but just after the progressive-liberal impulse to disseminate anti-communism through social-democratic reform (see my review of Terry Gilliam The Fisher King and its take on homelessness for more), A Knight’s Tale is the end-result of what happens when the cultural wing of the ruling class sees their primary social-imperialist adversary—the Soviet Union—dissolve but have no need to pretend and care about social issues.
This is to say that the medievalism of the film has been washed away. Since all the characters are White—a cardinal sin against it since today research has shown a great deal of racial and ethnic diversity in the medieval world—it is tempting to say that this film Whitewashes. But A Knight’s Tale does more than Whitewashing, it, for lack of a better word, “Americawashes”.
The narrative is that of William Thatcher disguising himself as nobility so he can joust; he was born a peasant, and so as the opening title cards make clear, he cannot joust since only nobility may joust (armor, horses, lances and so on are expensive gear and only able to be afforded by the elite). Donning the armor of his slain noble master—Sir Ector—William and his two squires enter tournament after tournament, besting each and every nobleman they encounter. Gaining allies along the way, such as the sharp-tongued and stereotypically ‘strong, empowered womanist’ Kate (Laura Fraser) or the rather debonair Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), who acts as a document forger and herald, William finds his trail to victory as a serene forest path; this is the point in the film where ideas of The Fair Unknown are repurposed for their modern equivalency—American ultra-individualism.
In medieval normalcy, the trope of the fair unknown was when a person of noble birth in a (un)noble situation, would one way or another find their way through great and noble fame; were your parents tight-bros with the king but tragically were cut down by those beggar assassins leaving you to rot in a– *gasp*– poor family? Good news! You, like a piece of shit in a toilet bowl, will rise to the top; for it is in your nature!
If you think back in your time watching American television, then this idea should be deeply familiar. It gets repurposed countless times in innumerable situations. But rarely does it get so re-contextualized in its home territory. Any studious fan of the middle ages will be familiar with this trope, and if so, then you will likely see it in today’s media as well, but because of this, it may slip your mind when watching A Knight’s Tale if only because one does not expect the fair unknown in historical fiction or at least in such an unexpected way.
The fair unknown in A Knight’s Tale is inverted. We have a low-class person who is indeed destined for greatness but he is not a noble by blood; a constant in medieval Chivalrous narratives. Instead, our William remains a peasant until the king himself—the deeply historically inaccurate Edward the Black—personally knights him thus allowing William to top off the plot’s finale.
We see, then, ultra-individualism and the fair unknown collide in somewhat awkward ways. William is poor but is destined for greatness and eventually achieves that greatness along with a noble title, but he was not born noble; instead, he attains that noble title like a true American—through hard-work and a winning personality. He climbs the social ladder thanks in part to wooing women but mostly through his skill in the specialist sport of jousting, and his unwillingness to let royalty win simply because they are royal—a trait which impresses an egalitarian King Edward. William’s initial ‘foul play’ at the beginning, his impersonation of someone who he was not, merely marks him as a true medieval American renaissance man. All of this, as I remarked, culminates in King Edward knighting William an act which allows him to best the anti-egalitarian Count Adhemar.
So, what does this mean? Well, it is an obvious spectacle; the knights and horses slamming into one another while Queen’s We Will Rock You blares. It is a sanitization of history; jousting tournaments as clean affairs little different from modern sports. Also, a Whitewashing, of course; nary a Non-White or Person of Color in sight. But, it is perhaps above all, American Exceptionalism, this “Americawashing” that I referenced; this idea of a White, heterosexual man rising through the ranks through his own talents and womanizing skills to win his high-rank and woman. Modern rock adorns such a spectacle to banish any trace of the everyday political violence minorities face so the virile American male may have another moment in the greatly revised historical sun.
But this should be glaringly obvious. Moreover, we should ask ourselves why it should be anything else. After all, this was during a time where the president, leader of the (un)free (capitalist) world, would openly talk of a ‘great crusade’ just months after this film was released, and how Christian fundamentalists spearheaded politicized versions of their religion to revitalize the “West vs. East” (Global North vs. Global South) campaign. In such a climate, especially one lacking any ideological balancing point, there is no reason for A Knight’s Tale to have nuance.
At least during the early nineties, when the revisionist Soviet Union was on was hanging on by a thread, there was a reason for U.S. oriented progressive filmmakers to be generous with social issues; therefore, Terry Gilliam made homelessness and heteronormativity central aspects of the plot in The Fisher King, because there was reason for this frank discussion to take place as a counter-pivot to the supposed sense of progress and forward momentum offered by the Soviet Union. With that rationale for frank discussion gone, however, and America’s neo-liberalism allegedly triumphant, there is no longer a reason to talk openly about race, class, and heterosexism; those were just props to be used as part of a propaganda campaign, not because they were treasured ideas in the American mythos.
I feel this is why we see, in this instance, the fair unknown trope in such unusual garb. Because even though we are desensitized to seeing it as a plot device, we are not used to seeing it in such overtly politicized yet non-critical stance. Normally, we see it with some threadbare conscious or even as a down-and-out reactionary purpose, even if that purpose has been sublimated by several degrees. Rarely, do we see it so brazenly in the service the economic elites and their cultural malaise. But it is and in a spectacular manner.
Regardless, and to stop hitting a dead horse long since passed, A Knight’s Tale is a different kind of medieval film. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, the film attempts to evocate multiple sensations from the audience. How well it succeeds in this today is an open question but the point is that no one can deny that it took an Arthurian trope and dropped it on its head even if why it did so was vulgar. Did I enjoy Ledger’s Middle-Aged opus? Sure, but that does not make it a remarkable film.