Friday Flicks: Knightriders
A legendary horror filmmaker's 1981 masterpiece...about medieval knights on motorcycles
George A. Romero, the legendary horror director who died this summer at age 77, made a movie in the early 1980s about a troupe of medieval reenactors who dress up as knights, perform tricks on motorcycles, and joust with wooden lances and rubber axes.
For a filmmaker best known for reintroducing the zombie as a staple of the American cultural imagination through such movies as Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), the Renaissance Fair-acrobatics of Knightriders (1981) may on its surface seem like quite the thematic departure.
And yet, no movie in his filmography better captures the stubborn idealism, artistic ambition, fierce independence, and persistent social criticism that defined Romero’s five decades as a filmmaker.
From its diverse ensemble performances to its dynamic action setpieces to its earnest yearning for an authentic counterculture, Knightriders may be the best movie he ever made.
Coming on the heels of Dawn of the Dead, the second in Romero’s original zombie trilogy and one of the highest-grossing independent films of its time, Knightriders was the director’s bid to avoid being typecast as strictly a horror filmmaker.
The movie is set in the rural outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (like just about all of Romero’s films), and follows a traveling band of historical reenactors who are dedicated to the medieval English legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
The members of the troupe earn their living and realize their athletic artistry by donning imitation armor and weapons, and then competing before crowds of locals who have come out to the fairgrounds for the day to eat hot dogs, drink beer, and watch two knights try to knock each other down.
But these knights do not ride gallant, white horses during their head-to-head jousts. Rather, they compete from atop motorcycles. They rev and roar over wooden ramps, kick up clouds of dirt with each sudden turn, and speed head on at their opponents to see who can best balance costume, weapon, and horse-powered engine.
At the center of this roving spectacle is Billy Davis (Ed Harris in his first lead role), who plays the troupe’s King Arthur.
A passionate, contemplative leader, Billy is a figure of authority and admiration. He is a man whose unwavering commitment to the group gives its actions life and purpose.
The community of reenactors and the performances that they put on are sustained by Billy’s idealistic vision to create some kind of utopian alternative to the crass commercialism of mainstream American culture.
The people in this troupe, therefore, live by a moral code in opposition to the pursuit of money and power for their own sakes. Their goals are chivalry, equality, respect, and creativity.
Morgan (Tom Savini), Alan (Gary Lahti), Rocky (Cynthia Adler), and the rest of the knights challenge themselves to new feats of courage and camaraderie with each bike-jousting competition. They welcome members of any race, class, gender, or sexual identity into their collective, urging self-awareness as a necessary ingredient for group cohesion.
Over the course of the movie, Romero shows this utopian society stress and fracture under the pressures of the outside world.
The promise of wealth and celebrity lure Morgan and his followers to disavow Billy’s stubborn, ascetic artistry. The threats and abuse of local cops intimidate others into sacrificing their principles for their livelihood. And at the end of every show, the group must guard against rowdy audience members who bring their own bikes, steal the prop weapons, and try to wreak havoc amidst the peaceful carnival environs.
Romero has long been celebrated as one of the pioneers of independent, regional cinema. Uninterested in the bigger budgets and creative compromises that come with Hollywood studio filmmaking, Roberto ran his own production company and spent almost his entire career living, working, and making movies in and around Pittsburgh.
Watching Billy the King struggle to fashion his own utopian, creative community untainted by the distortions of a capitalist economy, one can’t help but think of Romero reflecting on the rewards and challenges of his own parallel pursuit in the world of independent filmmaking.
In Billy’s Camelot and Romero’s Pittsburgh, creative outcasts and self-professed “trade school dropouts” band together to create collective works of art that nevertheless reflect the individual talents and interests of each participant. In these communities, people otherwise pushed to the fringes of society are allowed to express their innermost identities without fear of castigation or abuse.
As the leader of the group, Ed Harris plays Billy as a zealous idealist whose body is slowly breaking under the weight of the responsibility of keeping the troupe together. Alternating between zenlike meditation and bursts of uncontrolled anger, Harris brings calm and fury to his performance, always straddling the border of unhinged cult of personality while still striving for a selfless ideal.
Just as Night of the Living Dead offered a biting critique of mid-century race relations by casting a black hero fighting to survive against hordes of white rural zombies, vigilante townsfolk, and internal strife amongst the survivors themselves, Knightriders continues Romero’s disenchanted-but-still-hopeful vision of a judgment-free world threatened from both the inside and the outside by prejudice, hate, egotism, and violence.
But beyond subject and theme, the quick editing, carefully composed frames, and dynamic action sequences of Knightriders prove Romero’s status as a true “master of controlled chaos,” to quote Film Comment’s Nick Pinkerton. Cinematographer Michael Gornick rides right alongside the knights during the battle sequences, capturing the speed of the bikes, the agility of the riders, and the hurling bodies of bested combatants from as intimate a perspective as possible.
Though the camera hardly moves, the depth and choreography of action within each frame provides the jousting scenes of Knightriders with a close inspection of the artistry of these performers that Billy is constantly trying to enable and celebrate.
In the final sequence of the film, Billy becomes one with his ideals and achieves a level of transcendence that Knightriders lays the groundwork for throughout its nearly 150 minute runtime.
Though Romero would go on to direct for another three decades after this movie came out, watching that final sequence feels like witnessing the apotheosis of an idealistic, independent filmmaker who knew how to scare, but also knew how to create collective works of art free of compromise and true to a vision that the world could, and should, be better than it currently is.
Click on the below audio player to hear a recent episode of WNHH's Deep Focus about Knightriders and Tobe Hooper's 1985 space vampire movie Lifeforce.