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Script Review: A KNIGHT'S TALE - Brian Helgeland

Reviewed by Christopher Wehner


(09/29/00) NOTE: The screenplays we review are often in development and may experience many rewrites, some could end up being completely different than what is reviewed here. It is our hope that our reviews generate more interest in the film. Thank you.

If you have never heard of Brian Helgeland and you're an aspiring screenwriter, you need to read more. His adaptation of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, for which he won an Academy Award, is incredible. His other credits include: CONSPIRACY THEORY and PAYBACK. Helgeland is not only the screenwriter for A KNIGHT'S TALE, but he is also directing it as he did with PAYBACK.

What do you get when you mix 14th century knights in shining armor with 20th century rock and roll? You get Brian Helgeland's A KNIGHT'S TALE. When this retro, neo-reflective movie opens with Queen's "We Will Rock You" as knights in armor get ready to joust you'll probably to ask yourself, is this for real? Well, it's quite real. Helgeland's script doesn't always take itself seriously, which is a good thing as it's sometimes hard to take it seriously. It's also a script that sometimes takes itself very seriously, unlike other neo-reflective stories such as MONTHY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. But hold on dear reader, for in this silly, whimsical and thoughtless script a story worth seeing does indeed exist. Underneath the anachronisms is a dramatic, powerful, and classic Hero's Journey taking place, and one that I think will be worthy of your time.

Still, this is a script I battled over. Sometimes I absolutely loathed the concept, and sometimes I loved it. The story is not original or thought provoking in any way. But it was infectious. I enjoyed reading it. As I said, the script seems to be poking fun at itself sometimes, and then at other times it's quite serious. So how this translates onto the screen is important. Are we going to be laughing at the story or with it? Are we going to be moved?

Before getting into the plot I want to discuss what I mean by "The Hero's Journey." If you're familiar with either Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, and/or Stuart Voytilla's Myth and the Movies, you'll know exactly what I am going to talk briefly about.

The essence of drama usually encompasses the transformation of the main character, our hero. This person takes a journey that places him/her in harms way, and through self-reflection, and a brief moment of failure, they rediscover their true self. In Stuart Voytilla's Myth and the Movies, he discusses "The Character Arc" of the mythic dramatic hero. According to Voytilla, "The Character Arc is the pathway of growth (or decline) that a character accomplishes during the journey." The journey is the unfolding of the story.

1. The Hero has limited awareness of the need to change in the Ordinary World.
2. The Call to Adventure gives the Hero increased awareness.
3. The fear of change makes the Hero Reluctant.
4. A Mentor helps the Hero overcome this Reluctance to change.
5. The Hero makes a commitment to change as he crosses through the Threshold.
6. During the Test Phase, the Hero must experiment with the first change.
7. He Approaches the Inmost Cave, and prepares for the big journey.
8. The Hero attempts his big change during the Ordeal.
9. The Hero must accept the consequences of his attempt. These Rewards are the improvements and setbacks from his Ordeal.
10. The Hero dedicates himself to change at the Road Back.
11. The Hero makes his final attempt at the big change during the Resurrection.
12. Now transformed, the Hero can master the problem, the Elixir, that required the change.

These "phases" are representative of the Character Arc in terms of the "Mythic Structure of Drama." During this review I'll point out a few of these stages that are present in the story. When the movie comes out most of them should be represented in it.

A KNIGHT'S TALE centers on William Thatcher (to be played by the up-and-coming Australian actor Heath Ledger) who wants to be a knight. He gets his chance by assuming the false identity of Ulrich von Lichtenstein. His friends Roland and Wat dream only of full stomachs and wine, William longs for more in life. The story opens with the three of them in a bit of a predicament. They are Squires to Sir Ector, a noble and a knight-you have to be of noble blood to be a knight and compete. They are at a jousting competition and during a break, after Sir Ector apparently suffered a severe blow, they discover their Lord dead. In need of money and food, William heeds the Call to Adventure and assumes their Lord's identity in order to finish the match.

What at first appears to be an act of desperation, is in fact something more. Helgeland uses flashbacks to connect us with the motivation for why William wants desperately to become a knight. It's more than just having a full stomach and money for him. I find this use of flashbacks much more desirable than having a "talking" scene where, for example, the character tells his pals over a pint of ale how since he was a kid he always wanted to be a knight.

The flashback is a scene where William, as a young boy, asks his father if he could grow up to be a knight? An eavesdropping friend tries to discourage the boy saying, "The son of a Thatcher? A knight? You might as well try to change the stars." William asks his father again, "can a man changes his stars?" His father replies, "a man can do anything." It is with these simple words that I became emotionally connected with William. This is what William wants, and needs. He wants to change his lot in life, and perhaps change his destiny. Most of us at some point in our lives would like to have changed the stars. This is the story's theme. This quest will drive the narrative of the story-it's the narrative thrust of the story.

So heading the Call to Adventure, William takes Sir Ector's armor and assumes his identity, and wins the tournament. There was only one pass left, and William takes a hard blow to the helmet, but wins 2-1. Luckily his helmet was so severely enough damaged he had an excuse not to remove during the award's ceremony, as his identity would have been revealed.

After the event, William does not go along with his friend's wishes to take their winnings and celebrate. He convinces them to join him in his quest to become a knight. His idea is to create a fictional knight and enter joust and sword competitions. This accomplishes two things, it fulfills his desire to be a knight, and his comrades desire to make money. They begrudgingly agree.

So they go off to train William to fight and act like a knight and a nobleman. His friends assume the role of his Squires. They take their winnings and purchase the needed equipment, weapons, armor, and everything else a knight would require. There are several scenes establishing the difficulty involved in becoming a knight, this is the beginning of William's Test Phase. They set off to the next tournament in the town of Rouen (ironically called "THE ROAD TO ROUEN" in the script).

Along the way, about the time they are trying to come up with an identity for William, they run into a naked man writhing about in the street. This person turns out to be none other than a wacky scribe (Chaucer) who just happens to have experience and knowledge of noble certification. (Yes, it's hard to overlook the plot coincidences in the script. Every time William needs someone or something it magically appears. These instances number more than they should and really derail the story.) Chaucer can make William an official pass that will get him into contests, and also help him appear to be legally Ulrich von Lichtenstein, knight and nobleman. In exchange they feed and clothe him.

A KNIGHT'S TALE is not just an action-adventure story. It's a kind of medieval sports movie, it's the WWF of the 14th century. Another interesting thing in the script, just before jousting each Knight has a kind of PR guy, who introduces them before each match. Just like an announcer before a boxing match, you know, the "Let's get ready to rumble." Chaucer ends up being the ultimate PR guy. William represents a kind of "old school" athlete and his nemesis (Adhemar, who I'll talk about in a moment) will represent the self-centered, egotistical modern day athlete. Not only are stereotypes of modern athletes represented, but we also have gambling addicts. Upon arriving at Rouen, William learns that Chaucer lost his clothes from gambling. Later on Chaucer is back at it again. He finally admits he has got a problem. A final note, the screenwriter describes the arenas that these knights fight in with descriptions things like "VIP" Boxes, and the people watching take on modern day fanatic personas.

The fighting in the script is intense. There are lances shattering, helmets flying, and knights getting knocked off their horses so hard they flip in the air. Of course, back then, armor was so heavy it took several squires and a ramp to assist a knight onto his horse.

A KNIGHT'S TALE is also a love story. However, unlike my favorite medieval movie EXCALIBUR where the love story is of mythic proportions, this love story is something contrived out of a "Saved By The Bell" episode. But, in a weird way it works. I don't know, once again the writing isn't very imaginative or original. Though you get the feeling the screenwriter thinks he's been quite inventive, it's really all a smoke screen. The story is very recognizable.

William turns out to be pretty good at fighting and wins many matches and catches the eye of a beautiful princess, Jocelyn. He immediately falls in love with her. About the same time the antagonist enters the story, Count Adhemar. Who is also attracted to Jocelyn, and is a competitor whom William must defeat. The Count tells William that he plans to marry Jocelyn.

In their firs meeting Adhemar soundly defeats William. But overall, the tournament was a success for William. He won the sword competition. His Test Phase was now over. The script is moving briskly at this point. William continues to enter events and now starts to win them. The Count was called back to fight a war. Jocelyn and William's love grows. The finale of the script is the World Championships back in London where William grew up. Helgeland's use of flashbacks happen a couple times throughout the story giving us backstory on William, and providing us with the necessary information on why William is so driven. We learn his father, realizing he cannot give his son what he truly wants, give him up to a knight who agrees to raise the boy and train him to be a knight. A well written and gut wrenching scene. When William is back in London, now a knight, he discovers that his father, though now blind, is alive and well. He goes and sees him. Once again, another very emotional scene. The narrative has come full circle. It is at this time a major Setback occurs. William is exposed for the fraud he is, and is arrested before he can fight Adhemar for the championship. It is then that William, our hero, dedicates himself to change at the Road Back, and confront his situation rather than attempting to flee. That is about as much of the plot that I wish to discuss. The ending, however, should be obvious. It's just a matter of getting there. But I'll leave that for you to see at the theater.

I say the ending should be obvious because the story, though I liked it, is not very imaginative and is unfortunately predictable. I expected more from a writer of Helgeland's ability. His script is a very simple look at knights, honor, reverence, and all that comes with it. No matter what the main theme is, and his clever use of contemporary music and themes. The story falls inline with everything we have come to expect from modern day "fell good" movies.

Helgeland target audience is obviously the 18-32 demographic making this a movie the marketing executives will love to work with. Still, I'm not convinced there will be a widespread audience for this movie. I don't see A KNIGHT'S TALE doing well at the box office without a clever marketing campaign.

As I said at the beginning, I was torn while reading this script. I found myself asking "Why?" Why make this movie? Well, it's Brian Helgeland that's why. If Brian Helgeland's name wasn't on the cover no one would care about this script, and no one would have made it.

I see this as a story that can only turn into something special by Helgeland the director. Because Helgeland the writer wrote a nice script, but nothing special.

I am curious to see what happens with it, it should be interesting. Production started back in May in the Czech Republic, and filming wrapped in late August with a tentative release date of June 1st, 2001.

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