(1981) Written and directed by George A. Romero; Starring: Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Brother Blue, Amy Ingersoll, Tom Savini and Patricia Tallman; Available on DVD
Rating: ** ½
This low-budget curiosity by writer/director George Romero represents a departure from his usual horror forte, bridging the gap between Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow. Depending on your point of view, it’s a cult classic or a spectacular failure, with its Easy Rider meets Excalibur (which coincidentally came out the same year) vibe. If nothing else, Romero is to be applauded for the sheer chutzpah of bringing his unconventional epic to the big screen. It’s the consummate independent film – with a singular, uncompromising vision that would never have received the green light from the major studios.
Knightriders focuses on a roving troupe of latter-day knights on motorcycles, led by their charismatic “king” Billy (ably played by Ed Harris). The knights move from town to town, staging jousting matches and performing death-defying stunts to small-town crowds. Billy keeps the group together by upholding a chivalrous code that’s completely out of step with modern society. If this premise sounds a bit ridiculous, then you’re not alone. Romero’s film is unbridled insanity all the way, peppered with sporadic moments of inspiration.
Harris really gives his all to the role of Billy, endowing the character with more weight than the material probably deserves. You never get the feeling that he felt he was above the proceedings, providing a straightforward interpretation that never once lapses into camp. His impassioned performance hits one of the few right notes in Knightriders. Billy is completely immersed in a world of his own creation. He lives (and is willing to die) by his ideals, viewing his way of life as a tribute to an ancient, honorable era. He bristles at the notion that he and his troupe are simply stunt performers like Evel Knievel, but are actually carrying out a profound mission. He dismisses comparisons to cult leaders Charles Manson and Jim Jones, but the likeness isn’t entirely inaccurate. You might question why anyone would follow Billy on his quixotic, self-destructive path, which flies in the face of a world that’s hostile or at least indifferent to his cause. At some point Billy goes beyond simple idealism, lapsing into the realm of a severely delusional mind. His long-suffering girlfriend Linet (Amy Ingersoll) confides that she fell in love with him, not his code.
Frequent Romero collaborator Tom Savini plays Billy’s archrival Morgan. He covets Billy’s throne, but he doesn’t share the same high-minded view of the troupe. He takes a more realistic view, understanding that he’s here for the spectacle, and concerned about the direction he’s going personally and professionally. His decidedly more pragmatic stance puts him at odds with some of Billy’s loyal followers. When he’s accused of being in love with himself, he provides the film’s best line: “…I gotta love myself. Everyone else thinks I’m a bastard.” Although Morgan often comes across as a capricious rogue, his character is significantly more stable (and arguably more likable) than Billy. Morgan is set up to confront Billy in a battle of wills that ends up more disappointing than climactic.
One of the high points in Knightriders is the supporting role by folklorist Brother Blue as the troupe’s wise and enigmatic doctor Merlin. He senses Billy’s madness, but is bound by his unwavering dedication to Billy and the troupe. He patches him up but clearly understands that it’s only a matter of time before Billy’s actions will lead to something that can’t be repaired with a few stitches. Of all the characters in the movie, I wished he had received more screen time. IMDB lists Merlin as his solitary feature film role, which is too bad, since he lends a relaxed, quietly noble presence.
Knightriders is a bold attempt that eventually flounders. At nearly two and a half hours, it feels bloated, as if Romero didn’t know when to cut or just couldn’t part with any of the footage that had been shot. Many of the motorcycle riding scenes seem interminable, while scenes devoted to some of the minor characters just seem extraneous. The film stumbles along at an uneven pace, leading up to an overlong final battle that fizzles into anticlimax. While the film isn’t a total loss, taking into account its eccentric charms, I can’t really recommend it without reservations. Romero completists and fans of the truly bizarre will probably find a lot to like, while many will likely scratch their heads. I’m not exactly sure what Romero was trying to say, but I’m glad he said it (I suppose).
* Watch for the Stephen King cameo in one of the early scenes. His hammy little bit of scenery chewing reminds us why he should probably stick to writing and stay away from the cameras.