Published April 1, 2001
Not that I approve of it myself, but the metaphor of “culture war” would seem to imply two more or less evenly matched forces struggling with might and main to master and destroy or disperse each other. Yet much of what goes under that name is more like culture murder. Even that expression would be to dignify an act in which too often the aggressiveness and bloodthirstiness of the attack by cultural vandals encounters nothing like itself on the other side, but only the passivity, meekness and uncomprehending submission of an animal being led to the slaughter. This seems to be especially true in the ever-multiplying cases of historicide, which had its beginnings in the radicalism of the post-modern, deconstructionist universities, filtered down to our already slack and ailing schools where history as traditionally understood was simply discarded in favor of inspirational tales of scientific and social progress and individual triumphs over discrimination.
Lately the popular culture, always the primary field for turning history into myth and legend, has joined in the general assault on history by proceeding as if no one would notice or care—as, indeed, few do notice or care—when the people of the past are represented as being indistinguishable from our contemporaries. Perhaps the most egregious example yet is to be found in Brian Helgeland’s new film, A Knight’s Tale, in which the teen heart-throb from The Patriot, Heath Ledger, stars as a poor thatcher’s son in 14th century England who decides that he wants to compete in the “popular sport” of jousting, even though participants are limited to men of noble blood. He gets one Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), an impecunious poet with a gambling problem, to make up some fake patents of nobility for him and becomes a superstar jouster, winning the heart of the fair Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) until his arch-rival, the evil and stuck-up Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), discovers the secret of his origins.
“Usually, a medieval movie has a very lofty story, with knights trying to find the Holy Grail or whatever,” Mr. Helgeland is quoted as telling the New York Times in teen-speak. “It’s fun to watch, but it’s hard to relate to those characters.” So he helps us to “relate” by dressing his own not in period costumes but those modeled on what he describes as “the Rolling Stones in their 70’s pre-Raphaelite period.” In addition he introduces teen slang of today and Disney-style wisecracking sidekicks who include a teenage female blacksmith. “I didn’t want to present it as an alien world,” says Helgeland, “but a world that the audience would recognize elements of and see that they’re the same as elements of their own.” Accordingly, too, the crowds at the tournaments chant “We Will Rock You” and do the wave while Mr Ledger engages in end-zone celebrations of his victories, pumping his fists and saying “Yesss!” just like any contemporary teenager.
Only horror at the thought of being described as what the film’s extensive advertising calls a “purist” could deter critics with more than a sixth-grade education from pointing out the multiple absurdities of such a treatment. Doubtless Mr Helgeland was telling the truth when he said he wanted to avoid presenting the Middle Ages as “an alien world,” but the fact, escapable only in fantasy, is that they were an alien world. It’s like saying he wanted to make a film about Tibetans that presented them as Englishmen or Eskimos that presented them as Hottentots. What is the point of dressing up a high school football crowd with the manners and the sexual mores of 21st century America as if they were medieval lords and peasants?
The answer, as usual, is ideological. “Freedom!” cries the poor but honest thatcher-lad as he assaults the bastions of feudalism. Not coincidentally, it is the perennial cry of the downtrodden and oppressed of Hollywood too. We might have known that that was what this contemptible little movie was going to be about. But haven’t we, after all, had enough freedom in the last forty years—and maybe just a tad too much at that? Maybe it is time that we stopped mythologizing freedom and slaying yet again the long dead corpse of hereditary privilege and looked instead at another battle cry, that of duty and sacrifice and obligation and suchlike noble things that in those now-forgotten Middle Ages—and more recently too—were thought finer and more worthy things to strive for than freedom?
“I had read a history of medieval tournaments that described them as the favorite sport of medieval Europe,” Mr. Helgeland told the Times. “That struck me, because, for whatever reason, you think that organized sports have only existed for the last hundred years. It was interesting that they had them back then. Times and technology change but people are generally the same.” In those words we hear the voice of an ignorance so profound and so unchallenged that it is almost impossible to imagine how it might be put right. If anything is to be done about it, however, it cannot be done until we have the courage to risk being called “purists” for protesting against movies that insult our intelligence and insisting on the barest minimum of truth and historical accuracy.