Men in tights

Film - Philip Kerr recommends a knight to remember

This film is not Chaucer's The Knight's Tale; it's not even a parody of The Knight's Tale; this film is a hugely enjoyable parody - in the sense of the work giving a distorted sense of period, a device that Geoffrey Chaucer might reasonably claim to have invented in Troilus and Cressida - of some of those films that often starred Robert Taylor and featured, as Mel Brooks has it, "men in tights".

Back in the 1950s, Hollywood loved men in tights almost as much as Piers Gaveston; and, for almost a decade, Taylor (real name, Spangler Arlington Brugh) was scarcely ever out of doublet and hose, starring in films such as Ivanhoe, Knights of the Round Table and The Adventures of Quentin Durward. Of these, the first is by far the best. The next time you see Ivanhoe on the television, however, it would be worth bearing in mind that the apparently chivalrous Taylor ("the man with the perfect face") was a member of a militant right-wing organisation dedicated to cleansing Hollywood of radicals, and he appeared as a "friendly" witness during the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947.

On behalf of the Hollywood Ten - those left-wing screenwriters who were driven out of Hollywood, thanks to people like Taylor - I want to say this: Robert Taylor was a hero in Ivanhoe but, in David Bowie's phrase, it was "just for one day" and, in real life, "the shame was on the other side", because he was a rotten little fink.

Hollywood works in cycles. Ten years ago, there was a glut of westerns. Thanks to the recent success of Gladiator, swords and open-toed sandals are making a big comeback. (Gladiator 2 is already rumoured to be in development. Expect many other clones.) I should also hazard a guess that if A Knight's Tale is only half as successful as it deserves to be, then we can expect remakes of Ivanhoe, Knights of the Round Table - even, perhaps, The Black Shield of Falworth, memorable primarily for Tony Curtis and that immortal line of Brooklyn-accented dialogue: "Yonda is da castle of my faddah."

Written, produced and directed by Brian (LA Confidential) Helgeland, A Knight's Tale is an entertaining comedy-action thriller that defies the usual film categories. Try to envisage Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday with horses; or perhaps Monty Python and the Holy Grail meets John Boorman's Excalibur, and you will begin to get an idea of what this film is like. And, unlike Spangler Arlington Brugh with his silly little pimp moustache, it never takes itself too seriously - something that came as a considerable relief to this critic, after viewing more recent cinematic, medieval scrofulas such as First Knight and The Thirteenth Warrior.

A Knight's Tale is the story of a 14th-century Thatcher's son, William (Heath Ledger), who aspires to change his destiny by becoming the people's champion in the lists. (An allegory of Tony Blair's own idyllic tale? Perhaps.)

With the aid of his two friends Roland (Mark Full Monty Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), William changes his name to Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein and is soon tilting his way to riches. One man, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell) stands between William and top lance status, not to mention the posh bird in the svelte person of Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon).

Everyone turns in a relaxed but none the less pleasing performance. On the evidence of the vowelled breathing of the maidens who were sitting behind me, women will find much to admire in the "verray parfit gentil" person of Heath Ledger, whose improbable name always makes me think he has sprung from the pages of Dickens.

But, for me, the film is stolen from under Ledger's cuirass by the excellent Paul Bettany as Geoffrey Chaucer. And it is Chaucer who delivers the film's modest message. You see, it's Chaucer who creates the fiction of William Thatcher's noble lineage that enables him to take part in the "toffs only" business of jousting; and it's Chaucer, with his bombastic introduction of Sir Ulrich's appearances in the lists (which recalls Michael Buffer, better known to readers of this magazine as Showtime Boxing's Voice of Champions: "Let's get ready to rumble!"), who gives William the kind of crowd-pleasing build-up he needs to become a big star. Helgeland seems to be reminding us and, more importantly, his employers, Columbia Pictures, that film stars are nothing without writers. Amen to that.

Much of the action is accompanied by thunderous rock music. Before the big joust, the crowd rhythmically clap their chapped hands to the strains of Queen's "We Will Rock You"; the jousters arrive in London for the world championships to the sound of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys are Back in Town"; but best of all is the medieval ballroom dance scene, where a farandole suddenly turns into Bowie's "Golden Years", and everyone throws off their wimple, unbuttons their doublet, and goes disco. It is almost as if Helgeland - clearly some kind of radical who is intent on subverting Hollywood for political ends - says to himself: "To hell with convention, to hell with anachronism, let's have fun."

And it is. I had a lot of fun watching this film - although perhaps not as much fun as all the actors clearly had in making it. But let the last word be with Chaucer's own Knight: "God save all this happy company!"

A Knight's Tale (PG) is released on 31 August

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot