Preparing For A Knight's Tale Was Easy For Heath Ledger And The Cast

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Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" was the first of 24 stories featured in his 1400 anthology "The Canterbury Tales," originally written in Middle English to the chagrin of frustrated literature majors the world over. The premise of Chaucer's work is that a group of pilgrims, all from different walks of life, would take turns telling stories while they traveled from London to Canterbury to visit a shrine to Thomas Becket. Whoever tells the best story will win a free meal at a posh inn on the way back. "The Knight's Tale" is about two knights, best friends, who are arrested and put in adjoining cells. From the cells, they mutually fall in love with Elemlye, the Duke's daughter-in-law, spied from their windows. Their friendship immediately turns to rivalry, and the two knights end up facing each other in combat over who gets to marry Emelye. "The Knight's Tale" served as the basis of Shakespeare's play "The Two Noble Kinsmen," which he wrote with John Fletcher. 

"The Knight's Tale" also served as the very, very, very loose inspiration for Brian Helgeland's anachronistic and excitable 2001 film "A Knight's Tale" starring Heath Ledger. In the film version, the rival knights are the cocky, aristocratic Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell) and the scrappy and charming peasant William Thatcher (Ledger) who is merely posing as a knight. Thatcher is surrounded by a colorful retinue of shabby would-be aides — including a young, gambling-addicted Chaucer (Paul Bettany) — who help him win a series of jousting tourneys. The film is breezy, anachronistic (characters sing Queen songs), and a blast of dumb fun. 

In a 2001 interview with Cinema.com, Ledger pointed out that the lusty breeziness came from an extended "rehearsal" period that involved legit carousal, and a lot of cheap flagons of ale.

Drinking and getting to know one another

"A Knight's Tale" seemed to be genetically engineered for slumber parties. It starred two of the hottest young actors of its day — Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon — played openly with recognizable sports movie tropes, and was made by a filmmaker who, while having won an Academy Award for writing "L.A. Confidential," also knew how to handle fun genre films that appeal to teens. Helgeland also wrote the screenplays for "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master," Ate de Jong's "Highway to Hell," and Robert Englund's "976-EVIL." Helgeland seemed to demand that camaraderie come before analysis, and Ledger, in the Cinema.com interview, described the rehearsals for "A Knight's Tale" as being something akin to a vacation:

"More. It was wonderful, and the friendship was the stronghold of the movie. Brian brought us all into Prague a month early so we could rehearse, and we just spent a month drinking together. So rehearsals were just drinking and getting to know each other.

Much of the film's rehearsal process was intended to be taken up, by Ledger's estimation, with physical exercises and jousting. He and several others had to learn how to ride horses and hand jousting equipment. But having the cast — Ledger, Sossamon, Bettany, but also the incredibly funny Mark Addy, Laura Fraser, and Alan Tudyk — bond as friends was vital to Helgeland, and Ledger was pleased to report that the month of bonding worked:

"Yeah, we were meant to, and we did. But ultimately Brian just wanted us to get there and become friends and create something that glued us all together on screen — and we did, instantly. We all bonded and hopefully it comes over on screen."

Carousing

The interviewer on Cinema.com asked Ledger if there had been a lot of carousing. Indeed there had been. One almost wishes one of the cast members had carried a consumer-grade video camera into the bars of Prague in 2000 just so the public could have witnessed said carousal by Ledger, Addy, Bettany, and all the rest. Also so that attentive fans could write down the name of the Prague bar where Ledger seems to have found an amazing deal on beer:

"You bet. We hit all the bars. I think the cheapest beer we found was about 25 cents for a big flagon so a lot of fun was had by all."

Despite all the carousing, Ledger and Helgeland were professional once they came to set. The interviewer asked Ledger if he did any of his own jousting, to which Ledger happily replied that of course he didn't. He said that he was willing to do as much as he could, but also understood how jousting, even faked for a movie, was way too dangerous. Indeed, a stunt performer was even injured during a jousting scene: 

"I would do it, and we did as much of it as we could, but I'm really not willing to ride a horse towards another rider at full speed and hit them with a stick, or get hit myself. It was just way too f***king dangerous. Stunt guys were getting injured badly. One guy had his jaw ripped back, and had 15 stitches and was back on the horse two weeks later ... and it happened again. They were really hitting each other. Unbelievable! So I'd like to have given it a shot, but ..."

"A Knight's Tale" is currently available on Starz. "The Canterbury Tales" is available wherever Penguin paperbacks are sold.