Classic Review – Knightriders (1981)

Ed Harris as King Billy

Ed Harris as King Billy

Knightriders

Directed by George A. Romero

Starring Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Tom Savini

Review by Jordan

Dig a little deeper through Romero’s catalog, past all of the stumbling, flesh-craving zombies signifying social and political upheaval and you will find some truly unique cinematic gems.

Martin (1976) is personal, intricate film-making of the highest order (this story of a disillusioned would-be vampire remains Romero’s own personal favorite), Monkey Shines (1988) may never reach any terrifying heights, but taking such an absurd, possibly B-Grade concept and molding it into an well-formed and surprisingly moving thriller was a fine achievement and his vastly under seen Bruiser (2000) is an angst filled anti-establishment title in which Jason Fleming shines.

Then, there’s Knightriders… a 146 minute thematic absurdest epic featuring equal parts frenetic motorcycle jousting and spiritualistic lectures on the impossibility of  complete freedom in a greed-afflicted, prostituted modern America. Needless to say, a film that exists as a time capsule containing outstanding creative talent (from Romero as director, to his wife and creative collaborator Christine Forrest in an important role, Tom Savini proving the quality of his acting is equal to that of his make-up FX, Ed Harris showcasing a rare vulnerability and Stephen King spouting abuse in an entertaining cameo) that is completely one of a kind, stirring and absolutely beautiful.

Tom Savini as the Black Knight Martin

Tom Savini as the Black Knight Morgan

The story of a troupe of traveling performers re-enacting the age of King Arthur led by the enigmatic King Billy (Harris), whose idealistic existence is threatened when the local police take a violent disliking to this community, Black Knight Morgan (Savini) is seduced by the promise of celebrity and internal tensions reach boiling point, Knightriders,  though undoubtedly floored in stylistic execution, still stands as a representation of the stirring, escapist power of cinema. Romero’s original story is not about the entertainment associated with grown men and women dressing up in medieval attire to dance, sing and fight for the audience’s pleasure, but about why: the state of mind of Billy in particular is as intricate and fragile as any committed to film, as he strives to keep this earnest utopia intact.

In just his second feature film, it really can’t be understated the gravitas that Harris brings to the integral, grounding role of the troubled king. Switching from child-like elation to unrestrained anger as events progress, his mood is a wonderful reflection of the environment surrounding him, and when the conclusion draws nigh the viewer is made to feel exhausted for this determined man in a way that only a superb actor can demand. Offering strong support to Harris are Gary Lahti as the King’s personal defense and main protagonist Alan, Ken Foree (reuniting with Romero after excelling in Dawn of the Dead) as imposing blacksmith Little John and of course regular Romero collaborator Savini as the relentless Knight that desires the throne.

Knightriders draws scarce comparison to any other film, with perhaps Easy Rider the only slight exception as our outcasts are assaulted by the authorities and the third act signifying the end of an era kicks into gear. The name George A. Romero will understandably forever be synonymous with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) – two movies that will always remain pillars of the horror genre – and one gets the impression that were this cult curio that dictates “Camelot is a state of mind” the only he directed, it would be far greater analyzed and discussed.

It certainly deserves to be.

4.5 Modern Camelots out of 5

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18 responses to “Classic Review – Knightriders (1981)

    • Yeah I can kind of see that connection actually, although unfortunately for Billy and his band of warriors this is set in the real world, not the post-apocalypse.
      The hair brings out a whole other side of Harris! ha.
      Jordan

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  3. Just saw this review linked from your article on The Burning.

    I love this movie. I have a hard time picking a favorite Romero movie from Martin to Day, but this one is always in the mix. I love every second of this movie. Romero makes severely flawed characters that are still easy to identify with.

    • Yeah this does deserve mention when discussing his best films. I still maintain that Dawn holds that title though, with perhaps Martin closely behind. He really is a fine craftsman.
      Jordan.

  4. I think what makes this film work for me is that if you step back and strip it to its bare bones, it’s a goofy premise: knights jousting on motorcycles. But … the characters were so darn serious about what their hopes and aspirations, the movie works and works very well. Damn good actors who did not goofball their way through it. Classic. I recall seeing this on a late show with a girlfriend. She said oh come on, I said well let’s give it a few. We were riveted, and ran to the kitchen to get our snacks and beer and so forth. Didn’t want to miss anything. Thank you for the trip down memory lane.

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