Prague-shot ‘A Knight’s Tale’ turns 20: “A magical time in a magical city”

A Knight’s Tale, which shot on locations in and around Prague during the summer of 2000, premiered in U.S. cinemas on May 11, 2001. While the movie received mixed reviews upon its initial release, it has gone on to become something of a cult classic; its mix of modern rock songs with a medieval setting remains unique.

Directed by Brian Helgeland, A Knight’s Tale starred Heath Ledger as a lowly squire who impersonates a knight and rides the ruse up through the ranks of jousting tournaments in locations from France to London, all filmed in Prague.

Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk appear in supporting roles as the Ledger character’s squires, Paul Bettany plays poet Geoffrey Chaucer, Rufus Sewell an antagonistic count, and Shannyn Sossamon a noblewoman and love interest for Ledger’s character.

The jousting arenas where much of the film takes place, in London as well as the French cities of Rouen and Lagny-sur-Marne, were built from scratch on the backlot of Prague’s Barrandov Studio. The skyline of Prague, visible from Barrandov, was digitally removed in post-production.

While the sets for A Knight’s Tale were torn down after filming wrapped, Barrandov Studio has preserved an extensive medieval village created for the History Channel series Knightfall, and continues to use it to entice similar productions to Prague.

Most of the shooting for A Knight’s Tale took place on studio sets, but locals might be able to spot the occasional landmark.

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The most obvious of these is, very briefly, the exterior of St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle, which stands in for Notre Dame in Paris.

Squint and you can identify Prague’s Charles Bridge playing London Bridge. Houses were digitally added atop the Prague landmark, replacing the location’s iconic statues.

While London Bridge once contained houses (which operated as shops), they were destroyed and rebuilt numerous times before being demolished for good in the mid-18th century. Prague’s Charles Bridge never had such features.

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Scenes set at a banquet were shot at Štvanice Stadium, an ice rink on Štvanice island in the center of Prague. Interiors for the Notre Dame sequence were also shot in Štvanice Stadium. The venue has since been demolished, but its facade still stands on the island, with a biking area where the stadium once was.

Director Brian Helgeland along with stars Mark Addy, Paul Bettany, and Alan Tudyk, recently shared some behind-the-scenes details for an excellent retrospective on the making of the film from The Ringer’s Jake Kring-Schreifels.

Prague’s nightlife stood out.

“It was a magical time in a really magical city where you could walk into a bar, go through the back of a bar, walk through a courtyard, into somebody’s house, through their house where they’re all eating, and end up at a party in another house,” Bettany said.

“The nights felt labyrinthian and full of opportunity and fun.”

While Bettany preferred the Czech (presumably Moravian) wine, other cast members availed themselves of another Czech specialty.

“It was good Czech beer with no artificial additives,” said Addy. “They’ve got strict purity laws, and we were making the most of that hospitality.”

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Tudyk recalled a night out with co-star Sossamon, who took him to what might have been infamous Prague restaurant and nightclub U Zlatého stromu.

“We go down in the basement, and on the stage there was a sex show,” he said.

“She was there on a Wednesday when it was burlesque, and we were there on a Saturday — and it was no longer burlesque.”

The cast and crew built up a special camaraderie during production of A Knight’s Tale in Prague, both on set and off.

“Even after the movie started, we would go out together, and if there was trouble, which there could be in those bars, we all stood up as one,” Tudyk told The Ringer. “It was like the movie never stopped.”

Bettany, Addy, Tudyk and director Helgeland have remained close in the years since.

“It was just joyful — the most fun I ever had making a movie,” said Helgeland. “It was the best year of my life.”

A Knight’s Tale holds a special place in many hearts for containing one of star Heath Ledger’s most endearing lead performances. The movie wouldn’t be the last Prague sojourn for the actor, who returned to the Czech capital in 2003 alongside Matt Damon to shoot The Brothers Grimm for director Terry Gilliam. Ledger would later pass away in 2008 after filming for The Dark Knight.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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