Ledger’s character assumes the identity of his dead master knowing only nobility is allowed to competitively joust. Transforming from a common thatcher’s son to Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein, he becomes a hero on the medieval jousting circuit.
A Knight’s Tale (Columbia Pictures, 2000) is a satirical romance, not a historical documentary, and freely amalgamates the costume, custom and slang of many different periods to create a very distinctive world. Filmed on location in Prague it even features matte replicas of the London Eye and the Eiffel Tower to underline its anachronistic intentions.
And the unique soundtrack included classic hits such as Queen’s We Will Rock You, David Bowie’s Golden Years and AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long.
Alongside Perth-born Ledger, director Brian Helgeland cast Mark Addy, Paul Bettany and Rufus Sewell, all of whom performed competently; but most electrifying on the screen were the uncredited horses – the mighty Kladrubers.
“Czech carriage horses,” explains Helgeland. “There was a breeder in the country who kept the line going after the Russians had stopped. Their lineage goes back over 700 years, during which they pulled royal carriages and served as the medieval equivalent of tanks. We animated a little steam coming out of the nostrils, so they’d look more like locomotives!”
Kladrubers are incredibly rare with a population of around 1,200. Of these, around 1,000 are in the Czech Republic, with 500 owned by the National Stud. Their importance to Bohemia is recognised through their inclusion in the UNESCO Czech Heritage site.
Realising the dangers of jousting and working with large animals, the director at first had tried to shoot a lot of the mounted action in front of a blue screen. “We had actors riding sawhorses on a platform, but it looked fake,” he recalls. “The stunt director said, ‘let’s really joust’ and we hired professionals.”
He also had the assistance of French trainer Mario Luraschi (read more about him in ‘The Little Horse That Could’, Equestrian Life, April 2021). Many of the film’s horses were from the Czech National Stud, including Ledger’s bay roan. But it was Luraschi who provided all of the stunt horses including the black Andalusian/Thoroughbred, El Noche, who rears before galloping into the joust. And Emilio, a chestnut Spanish/Anglo Arab, who performs a very complicated scene. When the knight he is carrying (a stuntman) is felled by a lance, the horse flips up and falls backwards though the rail which separates the jousters. It required extensive planning and horsemanship and, in 2002, the team went on to receive an award for this perfectly executed stunt.