AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 145 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Billy leads a band of travellers who hold medieval-style tournaments except that horses are replaced by motorbikes. “King William”, as he styles himself, tries to lead the troupe according to his Arthurian ideals. However, the constant pressure of balancing those ideals against the modern day realities and financial pressures of running the organisation are beginning to strain the group. Billy is also plagued by a recurring dream of a black bird. Tensions are exacerbated by Billy’s constantly pushing himself despite being injured, Morgan – who believes he should be king, and the arrival of a promoter named Bontemp who wants to represent the troupe….
I wanted to review this film, probably my favourite George Romero film after Dawn Of The Dead [and my reviews of that and the other entries in the Dead series could do with sprucing up as they were written during this website’s infancy], almost immediately after the news broke out that the man had passed away, but I then found out that I didn’t actually own a copy. For some reason I assumed I had, though it wasn’t that long ago that I got rid of nearly all my videos and that would have been one of them. Anyway, here’s the review, and the first thing I should probably say is that it seems to be Romero’s most personal film, a heartfelt examination of the difficulties of maintaining both an alternative lifestyle and one’s integrity in a capitalist society that is basically driven by just one thing- money. Thematically one can probably relate it more to something like Easy Rider than anything else. One can even relate it to Romero’s situation in the film world [ a situation that would worsen], as a filmmaker held back by the constraints of commerciality from often doing what he wanted, though I’m not sure not this was that prominent in Romero’s mind when he wrote it. It’s certainly an odd film, and one that possibly falls between two stools, containing some terrific action but too long, slow and talky for many, though its themes and strong characterision meant that it’s certainly never bored me whatsover.
Romero first thought up Knightriders in 1976 as a film actually about King Arthur and company. American International Pictures head P head Samuel Z. Arkoff didn’t want to make it, but said to Romero: “Put the knights and motorcycles and use rock n rock music, then you’d jack it up”. This caused Romero to rethink the concept and what was originally called Bike Knights, then Knights, became part of a three film deal with executive producer Salah M. Hassanein following his distribution of Dawn Of The Dead. Hassanein’s stipulation was that one of the films had to be a sequel, so Romero promised he’d do Day Of The Dead as long as the other productions – the other being Creepshow – got made as they were two projects he was very keen on. The picture was shot entirely in and around Pennsylvania. Filming was frequently delayed due to rain. At one point the warehouse that was being used for indoor shooting was flooded by a cloudburst, while on the second day of filming a tornado struck the filming location and swept much of it away. The makes and models of the motor-cycles seen in the film were Yamaha and Harley-Davidson brand motor-bikes. Romero married Christine Forrest on the last day of shooting. Despite goodish reviews, Knightriders flopped in the USA and lost a whopping 41 minutes of footage for its European release, while in the UK it didn’t even get into cinemas and debuted on video. Reportedly, the producers of Knightriders received a payment so the producers of the Knight Rider TV series would be able to retain and not have to change their title. A sequel entitled Knightriders 2 was announced a while back. So far it hasn’t been made, probably a good thing considering it was coming from the same company behind the unofficial and poor Romero in-name-only sequels Day of the Dead 2: Contagium and Creepshow III.
Now Romero was many things but not a filmmaker known for pretty visuals. However, one can tell by how beautifully shot the opening moments of King Billy waking up in a forest with his queen Linet and then whipping himself in a lake are, that Romero cared about this particular film. Then for the next 15 minutes we get a series of great little vignettes as we build up to the first tournament set piece. Some of them feature previous Romero performers like Ken Foree [Dawn Of The Dead] and John Amplas[Martin] – in fact, one of the joys of Knightriders for Romero fans is that there are Romero fiilm cast members, both major and minor, almost everywhere you look, virtually making it a Who’s Who. It’s nice to see African-American Foree, whose character escaped the living dead with a white woman, show up here with a white partner. The local deputy sheriff turns up with demands to shut the show down even though the actual sherriff signed a permit. Morgan, one of Billy’s best knights but a rebellious one who even insists on wielding a proper mace when most other similar weapons have plastic ends, thinks that they should pay the man off, but Billy refuses as it’s against his ideals, something which sets up the film’s major conflict, as well as leading to Billy having to watch the deputy beat up a member of his troupe from inside a police cell. The first tournament goes ahead, but Arthur insists on fighting Morgan as he’s offended him, and as has apparently happened several times before, loses and has to be “rescued” by others before Morgan gets to him otherwise he’ll lose the crown.
Soon it becomes apparent that Morgan has different ideas about the troup to Billy and is willing to sell his soul to a flashy promoter and break up the troupe in the process. What’s especially interesting is that Morgan, despite constantly cheating on his girlfriend Angie, is such a charismatic character, and clearly has a better idea of the “bigger picture”, that at times you’re rooting for him over the rigid, dictatorial and possibly even quite mad Billy, though one has to admire Billy for never deviating from his principals. On the other hand, Billy hates commerciality so much that he won’t even sign a picture of himself in a magazine for a little boy who’s a big fan of his, and some of his ideas, such as having local bikers join in, are clearly quite bad. The screenplay doesn’t really side with one or the other and understands the good and bad points of both sides, leaving the viewer to make up his or her mind. I think that Romero’s heart is with Billy, but his brain is with Morgan, and isn’t it interesting how Morgan ends up a much nicer character than he was before? Meanwhile most prominent amongst the other story threads is Alan taking up with Julie who runs away to escape her alcoholic and abusive father and her weak-willed mother. Then there’s Pippin the announcer trying to come to terms with his homosexuality. The moment when the latter gets a boyfriend and shouts “Yes” on air is one of several good chuckles in an endeavour that’s generally serious despite the overall absurdity of the concept.
Many of the characters do parallel ones from the Arthurian legends though sometimes with some unusual tweaks, such as Merlin being a witchdoctor who says his predictions are more probabality than premonition, one of several occasions where this film seems to continue Martin‘s look at magic vs reality, and whether there’s much value in artifice after all. Romero seems to be constantly asking himself questions with this film, some of which even relate to his role as a filmmaker, though he doesn’t always seem to have a definite answer. Of course I don’t want to make Knightriders seem overly intellectual but there’s certainly a fair bit of brain food for the viewer to likes to think a little. Perhaps disappoitingly for some, there are only three set pieces [much like Rollerball], but they’re quite long and full of impressively staged combat and stunt work. The skill Romero demonstrated elsewhere in filming action, with punchy editing and expert choice of shots, is well in evidence. Here the script also pays attention to how dangerous to spectators such mayhem is. Otherwise this is a leisurely affair which is more 1970’s than 1980’s in feel, and yes, there are scenes and possibly even subplots which many other directors would have cut out. The main story is really quite simple and maybe the film didn’t need to be stretched to 145 minutes, though oddly enough some of the tinier subplots could have done with some more footage being shot to make a more even piece all-round. But, this being the first time I’d seen Knightriders in a great many years, the only major edit I would probably make if I was the editor would be to trim the final act which does seem to run on beyond its natural life. On the other hand, it does contain two of Romero’s greatest moments: Billy presenting his sword to the boy he previously refused to sign his autograph for which in its way is almost as moving as the ending of Camelot, and a fantastic shot of a medieval knight on a horse just before the climactic fatality, a point where perhaps the film could best have ended.
Outside of TV, this was Ed Harris’s first movie role except of a bit part in Coma, and he’s already great. When he explodes into anger, you’re totally convinced by it. Morgan Freeman turned down the Merlin role, but Brother Bear has such a distinctive presence in the part that the former isn’t at all missed. Tom Savini has what is easily his best film part as the Mordred-like Morgan and he’s clearly loving it. And yes, that’s Stephen King [with his wife] in a funny cameo as a slobby specator who thinks that “it’s all fake” Donald Rubinstein composed a really rich and diverse score for this movie. There’s a nice mock heroic main theme, sad string passages, experimental flute-led bits, odd interruptions by an electric guitar and a synthesiser – it’s just great. Knightriders has some minor problems largely because Romero seemed a little trapped by trying to make a very dense, multi-layered work that was also intended as a commercial enterprise, but it should be seen by anybody who thinks that Romero could just do zombies or indeed horror. And it should strike a chord with anybody who’s fancied escaping the concerns of the modern world and felt like trying something different, if only for a bit.