Over two decades ago, Heath Ledger embarked on a journey to Prague for the seemingly unconventional action-comedy A Knight’s Tale. The anachronistic medieval tale of jousting knights and fake identities, directed by Brian Helgeland, became a beloved hangout classic.
A Knight’s Tale may have divided critics, but it bolstered Ledger’s stardom on the back of the runaway classic rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You. It was a box office hit as well.
The film centred around William Thatcher (Ledger), a peasant who impersonates a nobleman to compete in jousting tournaments. With the help of his loyal friends, Roland and Wat, and the witty writer Geoffrey Chaucer, William rises through the ranks of the jousting world. Along the way, he forms a bond with a blacksmith named Kate and falls in love with Princess Jocelyn. The film combines medieval elements with an anachronistic pop and rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack.
The film ended up with a following of its own over the years, with many behind-the-scenes stories surfacing from time to time, endearing fans.
Here are five stories from the set of A Knight’s Tale you might not have known.
A Prague prelude
Before production officially began, Ledger’s eagerness to explore Prague led him to the city ahead of schedule. Helgeland, realising the cost-effectiveness of the city, invited the rest of the cast to join Ledger. “There wasn’t some big fancy hotel where we were blowing our budget every night,” Helgeland said as per The Ringer, “So everyone just started showing up.”
Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk, who played Ledger’s loyal companions, arrived with little to do but bond. The rest of the cast, including Rufus Sewell, Shannyn Sossamon, Laura Fraser, and Paul Bettany, quickly built a rapport while enjoying the city’s medieval architecture and local pubs.
Helgeland’s inspiration for A Knight’s Tale came from reading about a real-life medieval knight, William Marshal, who built a fortune winning jousting tournaments. Helgeland envisioned a fun jousting movie that broke away from the typical period films like Braveheart. “Every time you do a medieval movie it’s about freedom,” he explained, “Nothing against Braveheart, but is that all they thought about in medieval times? If someone farted in 1370, everyone laughed.”
But it wasn’t till he read about knights needing to be highborn that everything fell into place for Helgeland, “I read that line and basically the whole movie kind of popped into my head.”
The Charming Chaucer
Bettany may be more popular among the current crowd for portraying the android superhero Vision in the MCU films, but in A Knight’s Tale, he played Geoffrey Chaucer. His character was funny, crackling, and mostly naked in the first part of the film. Bettany’s humorous appeal initially eluded Sony executives, who needed some convincing.
Helgeland had Bettany record physical comedy sketches in his kitchen in order to demonstrate his comic timing and talent. Eventually, the studio came around, and Chaucer’s speeches became part of some of the most iconic moments in the film.
More Prague adventures
The cast’s off-screen adventures in Prague cemented their friendships. They explored the city’s hidden charm together, wandered through labyrinthine streets, and often found themselves in local bars. The abundance of inexpensive Czech beer and wine added to the fun.
One memorable night, Tudyk and his friends stumbled upon a burlesque club that was no longer there on their next visit. The cast also stood by each other in case of bar brawls, as per Tudyk. This sense of fun and camaraderie spilt over onto the screen.
Addy, who played the character of Roland, a squire and a loyal friend to William, was the friend everyone looked to for approval. But in his own words, Ledger took on that role when the cameras stopped rolling, “That smile—it would cheer up anybody. That filters down from the top. If your lead man isn’t happy, then nobody is having a good time.”
Addy described the experience as a dreamy adventure of a lifetime, “It was just a magical mixture of the right people in each other’s company sharing an ambition to make a fantastic movie.”
Bettany remembered a different side of Ledger that is just as telling of who he was as a person, “I remember he went off and got a tattoo, much to makeup’s distress. It was concentric circles—there was one circle, and then another circle, and then a little filled-in circle, almost like a target. And I said, ‘Well what’s it mean?’ And he said, ‘This is the universe, and this is the earth, and then this is me.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine having that much confidence,’ but he really felt at the centre of his world.”