Old School Reviews: A Knight’s Tale (2001)

I recently found myself reading a book called Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle by Juliet Barker, a fascinating look into King Henry V’s famous victory over an overwhelming force of the French nobility. Great book, really interesting stuff, bloody hard to remember all the Johns, Henrys, Thomases and (delightfully enough) Lancelots. Anyway, it got me in the mood for some knights and chivalry, and I narrowed my choices down to a bit of Shakespeare or 2001’s Heath Ledger-led rock’n’roll-anachronism laden romantic-action-comedy/sports film, A Knight’s Tale. I made a decision, and I believe it was the right one.

As I said, Heath Ledger stars as William Thatcher, a peasant who poses as a noble born in order to compete in that most medieval of sports, jousting. Along the way he and his fellow peasant squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), are joined by blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser) and Geoffrey fucking Chaucer (Paul Bettany), love interest Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) and mortal enemy the Count of Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). He achieves fame, fortune and a loyal fanbase, including the Black Prince himself (James Purefoy). Gotta love the Medieval name drops.

There is a lot to love about the cast. Perfect fits across the board, fantastic chemistry and even the accents aren’t too bad. Shannyn Sossamon is able to convey so much through a coy smile or an irritated frown, and seems to be having an absolute ball in the role. Paul Bettany is always a delight to watch, a showman playing a showman with a gambling problem and an absolute conviction that his place in history is assured even if no one else can be convinced. Rufus Sewell plays the subtle arsehole like few others, maintaining a keen poker face so that every small display of overt emotion seems far more dangerous. Even smaller roles are well filled. James Purefoy makes for a prince who understands and respects the points and price of chivalry and knighthood. Scott Handy, playing Adhemar’s herald Germaine, is excellent, a little out of his depth compared to the swagger of Chaucer but a professional entertainer nonetheless. You feel quite proud of him when he gives his final introduction of the film. And of course there’s Heath Ledger. We lost a good one there and I will say no more.

The script is excellent. I mean the story is okay but the dialogue, the lines and delivery are brilliant. It’s actually surprising that this film never became one of my go-tos for quotes. I mean, “The pope may be French but Jesus is bloody English!” How fucking good is that? Very good. The answer is very good. And “why don’t I use some variation of that more often?”

The really genius part of this film though is its understanding of the subject matter, as demonstrated by, amongst other things, the music. Y’see, A Knight’s Tale is a sports movie. That’s what it is, dealing with class and privilege while pushing morals such as the joys of ambition, courage, bravery, determination and that good sportsmanship will always triumph over being a dickhead. We hear this in the music, with great rock anthems playing between, during and after the matches just as they do at any arena today. The film starts with ‘We Will Rock You’ and ends with ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.’ ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ plays during a parade and they dance to ‘Golden Years’ at a feast. And it’s fucking brilliant. Not just a fantastic soundtrack but one that forces the viewer to accept the analogy and frame of reference. The familiar absorbs the distant.

Sport is sport is sport. Something that I noticed reading that book I mentioned about Agincourt was that many of these nights and princes were, in fact, the honest to god sports stars of their time. Codes of chivalry and knighthood crossed borders, cultures and religions, and people of all classes held onto stories of epic deeds, duels and jousts. Fashion, sledging, rivalries and WAGs were as much part of the sport then as they are now. It’s honestly just a surprise that no one thought of this before (and no one’s really done it since). At the same time the film never forgets its time frame, the religion, filth and racism, making it all the grander.

If you like a sports film, watch this. It’s more light-hearted than Gladiator and just as quotable.

Good God! Are we getting back onto our regular schedule? We’ll see. We will see. 

Old School Reviews: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

I’ve had a little trouble opening this review because it comes with a troubling (for me at least) admission. I’d never watched this movie until a few days ago. I mean, sure, I’d caught a couple of scenes over the years – a snippet here, a moment there – but I’d never actually sat through longer than a few minutes of The Magnificent Seven, and never on its own merits. I couldn’t even make my usual claim, that I’d watched “beginning, middle and end, but not in that order and not in one sitting” like I can with so many other movies. Why does that trouble me?

Well, for one, I have a soft spot for Westerns. I find it to be one of the most adaptable genres in fiction (fuck I love a good space western, from Firefly to the Borderlands games), and even love the works that thoroughly tear apart the mythology built around it (Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West still stands as one my favourite books ever and I was probably way too young to read it when I did). The second reason is that The Magnificent Seven is such an excellent movie and I cannot believe it’s taken me this long to find that out for myself.

Based on classic 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai (which I also really need to watch, given how many films it’s influenced over the years) and released in 1960, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of unemployed gunslinger, hired by a small Mexican village to help defend themselves from bandits. He finds six others willing to help, and are paid a pittance of 20 dollars (“That won’t even pay for my bullets!”), food and board for six weeks of bloody work. In time, the seven fall for the village, coming back to defend it in a climactic battle even after (spoiler alert for a fifty-fucking-six year old movie) some of the villagers betray them to the bandit leader, Calvera.

There’s such a huge cast that going through everyone would take longer than I’m willing to put the effort into, so let’s just mention the ones that stood out. Yul Brynner as the Seven’s leader Chris, who brings gravitas, kindness and practical authority to the role. A character with a firm grasp of the benefits of “teaching a man to fish.” Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner. Fuck, do I need to say anything else? Just, those eyes mate. Those eyes. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as one of the leading villagers, Hilario, a brave man desperate to create a better life for his children and people, incredibly loyal, intelligent and overall one of the most well-rounded characters in the film. He also shares one of the most endearing scenes in the film with Steve McQueen, while they’re hunting a trio of Calvera’s snipers. Eli Wallach as Calvera is something great as well, swagger and smalltalk unable to hide his willingness to commit violence at a moment’s notice, and utterly unable to comprehend why such talented killers are defending a pisspoor village with nothing to offer but three squares and gratitude, who then don’t even show a great deal of gratitude for most of the film.

The direction and fight choreography is about as good as you’d expect from 1960, and in more than a few ways even better. The deaths are over-dramatic and ridiculous, clutching and staggering and swooning in grand, sprawling heaps. But let’s not discount the absolute talent that was required to be shot off a horse without breaking your neck. Seriously, stuntmen were fucking amazing people, and still bloody are. The final battle is big and chaotic and as gritty as they could be before stuff like squibs were seeing wide use, and the fights before that are just as dramatic. There’s one moment in the first big fight between the Seven and Calvera that just made my jaw drop. Calvera and one of his henchmen are racing their horses through the village, perfectly synchronised as they hurdle over stone walls and whatever else is in their way, the camera following them as they go, and it’s both an amazing example of horsemanship and camerawork.

But what I really love about this film, what I really love, is the honesty of the film. I mean, the characters are all open about their motivations for the most part. Charles Bronson’s character is broke and desperate. Robert Vaughn’s Lee has lost his nerve and is on the run, and simply needs somewhere to hold up. Brad Dexter as Harry Luck thinks there’s more value to the village than what Chris is telling him (a gold mine, precious jewels, something) and that he’ll get a piece for defending it from Calvera. James Coburn as the lanky, laconic Britt is looking for a fight. As for Chris and Vin? Well, they’re never quite clear on why. This is just the work they do, and this cause is good as any other excuse to do it. Better, in Chris’ mind. The only one who seems to be there in some quest for heroism and glory is Chico, played by Horst Buchholz, something that is heavily discouraged by the others.

It goes further than simple character motivations though, greed or a lust for violence. Calvera’s men are starving, they need the villager’s corn or they wouldn’t survive the winter. We meet Chris and Vin driving a hearse to a graveyard, simply because they’re the only ones willing to risk getting shot by a bunch of angry bigots who don’t want an Indian buried on a ‘white’ hill. Charles Bronson’s character, Bernardo O’Reilly, berates a group of boys who call their fathers cowards for doing their very best trying to protect their sons, that being willing to back down for the right reasons requires its own kind of bravery that O’Reilly certainly doesn’t possess. When Chico discovers one of the village women, and learns that they’d been sent to hide in the hills because the village men said that the Seven would rape them he’s outraged by the lack of trust. Chris just goes, “well, yeah, we might” (paraphrasing here). He’s not saying they’re going to rape the villages women, but he acknowledges it as a valid fear that a bunch of well-armed, underpaid strangers might feel entitled towards taking additional payment from the village women. Shit, can you remember the last time a movie acknowledged this? That male heroes are often depicted being entitled to sex? I can’t. And here’s this guy not angry, just going, “I completely understand and you made the right decision given the information available to you.”

This film rips the shit out of toxic masculinity. And it’s a fucking western from 1960, the genre and tail-end of a decade that is responsible for so many of the most harmful tropes. I mean, yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of female characters, but still. This is definitely going in the pool room. Somewhere besides Mad Max: Fury Road.

Seriously, why have I not watched this film before now? This is my jam.

Old school reviews: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Not long before I left Australia the family gathered around and slid our copy of Mel Brook’s 1974 monster movie satire, Young Frankenstein, into the player. Early in the film, Frederick Frankenstein, is giving a lecture to a group of medical students only to have one of them stand up and begin asking questions about the work of his late grandfather, the famous Victor Frankenstein. The scene goes on, poor Mr Hilltop gets kneed in the balls (“give him an extra dollar”) and irritating medical student becomes even more irritating. And then, at some point as he brings up Dr Frunk-en-shteen‘s heritage, my dad points out that “He looks like Kevin Rudd!”

We all watch the scene, and the actor a little closer. “Oh my god,” I think it was my mum then said, “he even talks like Kevin Rudd!” The whole family cracked up laughing. Then cracked up again when Gene Wilder stabbed himself with a scalpel.

There’s no point to this anecdote really, beyond saying that loving this film has always been a family affair. Y’see, this is my dad’s favourite film. It’s not all that hard to make my dad laugh, but when he really loves a bit of comedy, when he’s really enjoying himself, well, let’s just say it’s fucking infectious. As a result Young Frankenstein became something of a family meme. I’ve talked about how my best mates and I are able to talk almost entirely in movie and Simpsons quotes, but amongst my family the go-to was always something from this movie.

Goddamn, especially that scene where he’s dreaming in bed. “DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!”

I think that a great film, a really great film, always has this communal aspect. That ability to fit the jokes into other situations, or simply cause a chuckle by invoking memories. Group reverence rather than individual reverence.

This is also the mark of a great actor. It’s an amazing thing that even, what, twenty years after he was last in a cinema, Gene Wilder’s death has marked so many people so deeply. He had and still has such a profound influence on the popular consciousness. I mean shit, every actor that plays the role of Willy Wonka from now until forever will be compared to the Gene Wilder version, a role that has become subject to some of the longest running memes I’ve seen on the constantly evolving internet.

A true entertainer and clown, and I say that in the best way possible. Watching him be hilarious seemed like the best tribute I could think of. Watching with my family will be one of the first things I do when I get home.

Reviewing the Old School: Braveheart (1995)

I’m not sure if I like this film or not. I used to. Loved this film actually, but I’m not sure I do anymore.

This was another one of those films that my mates and I would just casually quote in conversation. Seriously, we can have complex discussions on current affairs in Simpsons, Family Guy and movie quotes. One mate could pull off a pretty solid Scottish accent and another rocked an impressive Edwards Longshanks. “You dropped your rock,” was a common response to queries and commentary, as was “Bring me Wallace. Alive, if possible. Dead, just as good.” Amazing how easy it is to fit that into casual conversation.

Rewatching it, Braveheart is still really bloody quotable. Especially Stephen, played wonderfully by David O’Hara with some of the best lines in the film. “The Almighty says don’t change the subject, just answer the fucking question!” I fucking love Stephen, still get’s me laughing.

But the biggest problems I have with this film are also with the script, which was very obviously written by a Yank. Obviously being because Mel Gibson won’t shut up about freedom. It’s all “they cannae take our freedom” this and “lead us to freedom” that. I mean, yeah, I get that most of the Scots we see in this film are supposed to be illiterate and uneducated, but William is supposed to speak four different languages (I assume he speaks some version of Gaelic, even if we never hear him say anything Gaelic), surely he has a wider vocabulary than that? In all honesty though the rhetoric we see in this film takes a heavily American slant, focusing on that single word, painting broad strokes with that single brush.

It’s funny, when you study nationalistic movements even the groups that have “Freedom” in their name don’t just blanket the word around. They talk about independence, self-governance, civil liberties, rule of law, places within the law, ethnic superiority, tribal loyalty and protecting tradition. The slogan of the French Revolution was ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ not ‘Freedom, Freedom and Freedom.’ Basically what I’m trying to say is that I’m old enough to now know how stupid most of the ‘inspiring’ dialogue is, and rewatching the film was, well, disappointing.

There’s more to be said about this film, but I don’t want to say it because it’s not going to affect my opinion of the film. The historical inaccuracies (the Scots would have been wearing trousers not kilts, and the Battle of Stirling was actually the Battle of Stirling Bridge) and the tacked on romances (I wonder if they’d still get an Oscar for fridging Wallace’s sort-of wife in this day and age – also, Wallace fucking a French princess) are more than a little jarring, but these things don’t matter nearly as much to me as the fact that the speech in front of the gathered army at Stirling is not nearly as epic as I remember it to be.

But it’s still really, really fucking quotable. Or at least Stephen and Edward Longshanks still are. I don’t know what to tell you mate. I just can’t decide on this one.

Gonna throw it out there as well: this film is pretty homophobic.

Let’s call this one a “make up your own mind” and leave it at that, yeah?