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6th Jun 13
A touring troupe of medieval entertainers on motorcycles struggle to sustain their way of life in modern USA. Early 1980s USA anyway. It's a Romero movie, sans zombies.
It’s hardly surprising that Knightriders met with mixed reviews when released back in 1981. It’s the curse of success for Romero, especially when that success is intrinsically linked with the flesh eating ghouls from the film that invented the modern zombie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), followed by Dawn of the Dead (1978). And it’s a curse he still lives with to this day, moving the shuffling undead into the modern (and sometimes not-so-modern) world, at the expense of making films from a more overtly personal point of view. From my own viewpoint, I recall seeing Knightriders on BBC2’s Moviedrome back in the mid 90’s, and apart from delighting in recognising all those familiar faces from his earlier films, I honestly really didn’t know what the hell to make of it.
Today, it remains a very unusual and unique film, but one which can be enjoyed because of, not in spite of, these qualities. A profoundly human experience, it feels like a movie for grown-ups, who are more likely to have the emotional intelligence to grasp Romero’s personal themes at play here. Which is why it was probably lost on me – and I dare say plenty more fans of Romero’s undead outings – at an early age.
And what a package this Arrow Video release is. The Blu-Ray presentation looks stunning, packaged with the customary reversible sleeve, various interviews with cast members, (an old?) commentary, and a great booklet packed with all the information Romero fans will eagerly lap up. The only thing missing is a filmed interview with Romero himself, but as he features on the commentary, we can’t really complain too much.
The story centres on a troupe of travelling performers who joust on motorcycles at renaissance fairs, dressed in medieval costumes, and living in accordance to the values of Camelot. A young Ed Harris in his first big screen starring role, plays King Billy, leader of the troupe, whose regular challenger to the throne comes in the form of Morgan the Black Night, played to perfection by latex and squib guru, Tom Savini. Surrounding them is an array of interesting characters whose faces you will no doubt recognise from Dawn of the Dead, Martin, The Crazies, as well as the later Creepshow and Day of the Dead. The George A. Romero family.
The crowds who pay to watch the petrol fuelled jousting spectacles bay for blood, but behind the scenes the group is struggling both with finances, and staying true to their ideals. But the trouble really begins when a TV company approaches, offering fame and riches, which splinters the troupe; on one side, King Billy, whose beliefs remain true and steadfast. On the other side is the crown-chasing Morgan, who despite being a worthy successor to Billy, has become disillusioned with this lifestyle and seeks a fast track to fame.
As you’d expect with a running time of almost two-and-a-half hours, there are various well-explored subplots and campfire philosophies to be had here, and you have to give Romero credit for letting this material play out to his whim. However, around the two-hour mark, it’s hard not to wish for some fat trimming throughout the story; Romero is too generous and does tend to shoot a lot of footage. Thankfully, the performances make this arguable excess bearable, and I could go on and on praising various performances that make his story float so effectively. Ed Harris steals the show as Billy, a tragic, troubled and highly idealized figure whose commitment to this lifestyle will never be compromised. Savini more than holds his own as Billy’s ultimate rival, and by his own account in the accompanying interview, he simply plays Morgan as a version of himself. Almost all of the actors get their chance to shine here, and when not engaging in dangerous battles, demonstrate a genuine sense of brotherhood and camaraderie, effectively serving to help the viewer engage in what is essentially a very odd little movie.
Massive kudos goes out to the stunt team involved in this production. The battle sequences feature an array of stunts, which look genuinely death defying, or neck breaking at least. We had come to expect no less from Romero and his then cinematographer ace, Michael Gornick, who had previously lensed high-speed motorcycle action so effectively in Dawn of the Dead.
Complimenting this exercise in originality is a noteworthy soundtrack by Donald Rubinstein, brother of Rick, Romero’s long-time producer. Sure, the main Camelot theme tune carries a heady whiff of medieval cheese, but elsewhere his score really shines, reflecting the inner turmoil and tragedy of key characters like Billy. Rubinstein actually features as one of the troupe’s musical ensemble, and gets the opportunity to show his skill during a really sweet scene in the latter part of the movie.
This may sound weird, but you can tell Knightriders was written by a good person. It showcases a beautiful mind at work, a man who isn’t afraid to tackle themes in a sympathetic and mature way that seem incongruous to the general attitude of early 1980s USA. And Romero really bares his soul here, too, expressing himself through his central character, in a way that he probably hasn’t done before or since. This is a funny, charming, tragic and endearing movie about humanity itself. And blokes in silly costumes riding about on motorcycles.