Synopsis: Knightriders is the story of a troupe of motorcyclists who are members of a traveling Renaissance Faire. They move from town to town staging full medieval jousting tournaments with combatants in suits of armor, wielding lances, battle-axes, maces and broadswords. The spectacle of this magnificent pageant soon garners national attention much to the dismay of the current king of this Camelot.
A conflict arises as they try to maintain their fairy tale existence in a world wrought with corruption. Can they hold on to their Camelot state of mind?
eyelights: Tom Savini. its performances. its stunts. its core conceit.
eyesores: its plain melodrama.
“I’m not trying to be a hero! I’m fighting the dragon!”
Renaissance fairs. I don’t get it. I really don’t. I’m not much of a history buff, so the idea of revisiting past eras is beyond me. And sometimes I find it a bit silly; some people devote a lot of time and energy creating the illusion of living in a different time and place, of being someone else.
Meanwhile, all I can think is “Be here now”.
For some people, it’s more than escapism; it’s a way of life. In ‘Knightriders’, we follow a troupe of people who were brought together by the leadership of King William (né Billy) and who live and breathe by a code long-forgotten. Together, they travel from town to town jousting for the locals.
Yep, in ‘Knightriders’, William’s court presides over tournaments that are held on standards, not steeds. On the one hand, it makes traveling much easier, as they can easily hop on their mounts and get to the next town. On the other, it increases the chances of suffering a grievous injury.
(Though Merlin is on hand to tend to the injured…)(Yes, Merlin!)
It also costs money. And money is becoming a problem for King William, as he gathers more and more followers. Though they split the revenue equally, there isn’t that much to go around. And there begins to be grumblings about the opportunities that they’re missing out on to make real dough.
But Billy won’t have any of it: he won’t compromise his vision. He won’t yield to anyone trying to profit off of his dream. He won’t turn the troupe into a circus, run by promoters and advertising agents. He’d rather die. But he might take everyone with him – if they don’t break up the troupe first.
The motion picture, which was released in 1981, is a curiosity: not only is its subject matter out of the ordinary, it’s one of the rare occasions where George A. Romero ventured away from the horror genre. It was made between ‘Dawn of the Dead‘ and ‘Creepshow‘, which he was writing at the time.
(…with Stephen King, who actually has a cameo in ‘Knightriders’ with his spouse, Tabitha.)
But it’s a much better film than you’d imagine. I mean, seriously, people jousting on motorcycles? How do you take that seriously? Well, you take that as seriously as Billy takes it, which is very. This is a guy who lives by an Arthurian code of honour, and who flagellates himself after making love.
He’s the real deal.
What makes the picture interesting is how Billy’s old world ideals conflict with real world values. As some of his followers try to tell him “It’s all to do with money. Money makes the world go round, even your world.”. Is there any place for him and his worldview in modern North American society?
We’re about to find out.
‘Knightriders’ is probably one of Romero’s more coherent and cohesive films. Though I’m not that keen on the subject matter, I was surprised by how steady the storytelling is, how well-conceived the whole thing is. Though even his best films have their technical limitations, this one has none of that.
The performances are solid, through and through: It finds Ed Harris in his first leading role, as King Williams. Can’t go wrong there. Tom Savini, who started as Romero’s make-up and special effects guy, is surprisingly good as his rival, Morgan. Almost everyone is excellent, even the non-actors.
What’s especially stunning are the stunts. Though they aren’t at all elaborate (Billy isn’t Evil Knievel, as he reminds his fans and followers…) there are a lot of hits and accidents during the jousts that look pretty rough. Given the picture’s budget, I doubt that they used ropes; people could get hurt.
It looks very real.
The melodrama is also realistic, but it was a bit boring to me. Yes, it makes sense that some people might want to reap the rewards of their hard work. Yes, it makes sense that an authoritarian leader will have devotees and detractors. But, to me, it didn’t amount to anything especially special.
It did serve to highlight the conviction with which Billy believed, however: He wouldn’t pay off dirty cops, so he joined one of his own in jail to protect him. He wouldn’t leave town until his “stray sheep” had returned to the fold. He also refused to bend to the world until the bitter end.
Fight or Yield, is the troupe’s motto.
But Billy never yields.
One thing I really liked about this picture is that Romero once again infused his picture with a progressive streak: black and white intermingle, women are jousters as much as men are, gay and lesbians are openly accepted, …etc. Given the time that it was made in, it’s actually quite bold.
Colour me impressed.
Look, I can’t say that I was enamoured with ‘Knightriders’; it was a long picture about a subject I care nothing about. But it’s a well-made one, and I appreciate the skill with which it was made. I believed – not in Billy’s vision, but in Romero’s, who took us into a completely alternate way of life.
For a picture about medieval revivalists on motorbikes, it’s pretty darned good.
(Now where’s my chainmail underwear…?)
Date of viewing: November 4, 2017