Throughout the era of classical films, Hollywood was often guilty of what many contemporary Americans generally see as a prejudice; for instance, women were mostly objects and mostly there for the often faultless and ever masculine hero to save, while characters of different cultures other than White Americans were portrayed as ignorant or comical, many times even with White actors (think of the “Middle-Eastern” characters in Lawrence of Arabia or Sinbad), and every story centered around justice, liberty, and other such American ideals. In modern times, while aspects of American culture have changed, the formula for creating a popular movie has not: in academic terms, a successful movie must appeal to the “popular American narrative.” In theatrical terms, a film has to “give the audience what it wants,” and historical accuracy, rather than gender or ethnicity, has become one of the greatest victims of the drive for mass appeal in today’s American movie market.
Increasingly, historical fact is being “molded” or even ignored in the movies in order to “bring an old world to a modern audience,” a quote which is part of Director Brian Helgeland’s actual argument in an interview included with the “special extended edition” DVD version of his film, A Knight’s Tale, a film which perfectly demonstrates this method of “modernizing” historical movies. Helgeland’s experimentation with on-screen historical fiction provides us with an adventurous folk-tale, with dashes of both comedy and romance (the sort of story meant to appeal to as many random movie-goers as possible), and perhaps one of the most striking examples of movie-making’s disregard for history that I have ever seen.
Having not previously seen the 2001 film, I decided it was my best available target for a look into Hollywood’s take on (or in many cases, perversion of) history: at first glance, the cover of the DVD case includes the catch-phrase “he will rock you”, which I was immediately certain somehow had to do with classic rock band Queen and their well-known anthem. I was intrigued that it was even chosen to advertise that particular film, and it was my first indication that director Helgeland had consciously and openly undertaken a “blending” of modern social elements in a historical setting.
Thus, in a serious attempt to judge the film as a portrayal of history but also to respect it as a piece of art meant for entertainment, I decided to watch A Knight’s Tale twice from two consciously different standpoints, a method which came up with very mixed results. The first time, I experienced it as an average home movie-watcher and found that I enjoyed the film quite thoroughly, light-heartedly cheering for the protagonist and laughing – where I was supposed to. But by the following evening, when I approached the DVD player a second time, from the standpoint of a historian who had been thinking about it all day, I had grown quite vengeful towards Mr. Helgeland and A Knight’s Tale. Already a horridly misleading and paradoxical concept in and of itself, the director’s purposefully-flagrant method of “modernizing” on-screen portrayals of history had provided a more complicated task than I had come to expect from previous similar film critiques.
The film does not state the year (or even the century) in which the story is supposed to take place, but judging by evidence from the few characters based on actual historical figures (which will be more thoroughly discussed later), the tale apparently takes place in the 14th century, most likely around the year 1370, during the reign of King Edward II and the earlier half of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Its theme centers on social-mobility and the idea of an English common-man and squire, played by Heath Ledger, who is born into poverty but is lucky, clever, and faithfully determined enough to elevate his social status from that of lowly squire to that of a respected nobleman. A quick glance at the…