I was watching the film A Knight’s Tale (starring Heath Ledger,
Rhys Ifans Paul Bettany and Rufus Sewell; directed by Brian Helgeland) during a class on history and film at my university. It’s set in the Middle Ages and features jousting to a Queen beat, an MCing Chaucer and Heath Ledger dancing to David Bowie at a medieval banquet in a green dinner jacket made from a tent. Historically accurate it ain’t.
Though that’s the point, as far as I can see. It’s also one which many people seem to have overlooked, based on the critical reaction to it. It’s only scoring 58% fresh over on RottenTomatoes, with most of the negative reviews mentioning the anachronistic elements of Helgeland’s film.
It seems to me that the charge most likely to be levelled against A Knight’s Tale‘s anachronistic elements is that they represent the film dumbing down; that they’re about Hollywood selling realism down the stream in favour of a more commercial film.
However, I think Helgeland’s doing something much cleverer with his anachronisms. He’s showing tournaments as popular and raucous spectacles, and he uses the Queen soundtrack and the Mexican wave as cultural shorthand for us to understand the spirit of the occasion. They didn’t sing along to Queen, but they may well have had similar rituals which were conducted in a similar fashion. Helgeland’s purpose is to show the meaning behind the events, rather than fixating on selling the audience an archaic version of events themselves.
Take Ledger’s dinner suit. When we see it, we understand he’s gone to an effort and dressed up smartly. If we’d seen him in some random tunic we don’t have the cultural context to understand that what he’s wearing is smart. To modern audiences, a tunic is a tunic is a tunic.
To fixate on the anachronisms is to miss their point: they’re to aid us in understanding medieval society by using our own culture analogously — the tale is placed centre stage.