Value Charges and Changes, Part II

Note: This article contains spoilers of the movie A KNIGHTS TALE.

In this article I provide an example of the changing value charges we discussed in Part I. If you haven’t read it yet, take a look at the first part of this article, entitled: Value Charges and Changes, Part I.

I recall watching the climactic moments of the the film A KNIGHTS TALE1 and realizing, for the first time, the significance of a certain change in value. In one scene, William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) charges toward his opponent, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), on horseback in a jousting competition. He has removed his armor and helmet due to a major wound in his right shoulder. The film moves into slow motion as we watch Thatcher riding forward, his face filling the frame. Suddenly, he yells out his name: “WILLIAM!”

I had seen the film on multiple occasions, but this time I wondered, Why did he yell out his own name? Providentially, I came to the conclusion that this was the whole point of the film. This was the theme, or the “Controlling Idea” as Robert McKee would put it.2 You see, throughout the film William hides his true identity. He is a peasant boy, not of noble birth. At the opening of the film, William’s former master dies in a jousting competition. Rather than forfeit the match, William puts on his master’s armor and rides in his place. From then on, William goes by the name Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein. He doesn’t want people to know his true identity lest he and his fellow squires be killed for impersonating a knight.

Later, during a flashback scene, we see William’s father tell him that he can “change his stars,” and that all William needs to do to find his way home is to “follow [his] feet”.

But alas, William’s true identity is discovered and he is sentenced to death. But, through the merciful help of a friendly king, William is released and is knighted, Sir William Thatcher.

This brings us to the Controlling Idea/Theme. Now, in a final bout with the antagonist, Count Adhemar, William yells out his true name: WILLIAM! He is no longer afraid of people knowing his true identity. This is his name and he accepts it. Furthermore, devoid of armor and helmet, William is no longer hiding behind anything. We see him fill the frame; we see him for who he is. From beginning to end, the film archs this character from hidden identity (negative charge) to unhidden, true identity (positive charge). We see that he is able to “change his stars” from peasant to knight after all. The controlling idea might be stated like this: We can change our stars and prevail when we are (and do not hide) who we were made to be–our true selves. In a sense, this suggests we are all of “noble birth” if we live up to our full potential.

This, of course, is just one, simplified instance of a change in value charge in the film A KNIGHTS TALE. There are others–the romance subplot, for example, moves from apart (-), to together (+), to apart (-), to finally back together (+). William is also able to find his way back home to his father (+). As well, he finally defeats Adhemar (+). All in all, there are many changing value charges in this story. We move back and forth across these charges as the story progresses to its climactic moment, ultimately turning on a significant, identity-defining value charge in a final, irreversible way.

Do you notice the changing value charges in your favorite stories? Read or watch them and try to notice the values at stake. You might find a deeper understanding of the story’s Controlling Idea.


All references and quotes from A KNIGHTS TALE are from the 2001 Special Edition DVD (See footnote below). All rights are reserved to their respective owners.

1 A Knights Tale, directed by Brian Helgeland (2001; Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2001), DVD.

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 115.

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