All right, you all owe me an apology. There’s been a George A. Romero-directed film featuring faux knights jousting on motorcycles since 1981 and not one of you thought to tell me about it? I’ll make an allowance for the fact that I wasn’t alive until 1984, but beyond that there’s really no excuse. The film in question, Knightriders, is a rare non-horror entry from the man responsible for the modern interpretation of zombies. But it’s also unquestionably a Romero flick.
Set in Western Pennsylvania (naturally) Knightriders features a slew of Romero regulars, including Ed Harris, Ken Foree, Tom Savini, Christine Forrest, a cameo from future Creepshow collaborator Stephen King, and even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot from Captain Rhodes himself, Joseph Pilato.
But Romero’s fingerprints in this film go well beyond setting and casting. Also present is his ability for digging into social dynamics, only this time he does so without the shadow of impending death hanging over everyone’s heads. Instead, the film follows a troupe of medieval reenactors that Romero modeled loosely off the real-life Society for Creative Anachronism, a group established in the late ’60s that recreated European culture of the 17th century. One of the key components Romero used for Knightriders is that rather than lineage, the right to rule is determined in mock combat.
Presided over by Billy, aka King William (Harris), the troupe makes money travelling from town to town, charging locals to come see their Arthurian-style jousting tournaments where trusty steeds are the kind with two wheels. For Billy and his court, the troupe represents more than a way to make a buck. It’s a community where people have a chance to find themselves, but not all is well in Billy’s kingdom.
Billy is adamant about adhering to the ideals of honor and loyalty that he admires from Arthurian legend, but team champion Alan (Gary Lahti) and troupe doctor Merlin (Brother Blue) are worried that Billy is taking his role as “king” too seriously at the risk of group morale and his own health.
Meanwhile, Morgan (Savini, putting down his makeup kit for an impressive performance) is a self-centered ass who regularly cheats on his girlfriend, Angie (Forrest), but he also genuinely cares about the group and wants to see it expand, so he looks for an opportunity to hook the troupe up with a local management company to get bigger gigs.
Romero takes what could have been a simplistic conflict between Billy’s idealism and Morgan’s opportunism and instills layers of complexity. Sure, Billy seems to be taking a noble stand when he refuses to bribe the local redneck deputy while Morgan suggests they just pay him off and move on, but in digging his feet in, he winds up in jail with a fellow troupe member who takes a beating at the hands of said deputy. These kinds of situations play to the idea that life is rarely black and white.
In fact, other than the deputy (who is more of a background character) there really aren’t any true villains in the film. Conflict comes from protagonists who at times serve as their own antagonists, making questionable decisions, but never fully tipping the scales into full-on black hat mode. Romero takes time to write characters that we give a crap about in a true ensemble movie that isn’t afraid to take its time with the characters (the movie clocks in at 146 minutes).
Take Pippin (Warner Shook), the group’s announcer. He struggles with coming to terms with his own sexuality, causing tension with Angie, whom he also judges for being a tomboy and letting Morgan run all over her. She’s hurt by the fact that he won’t open up to her about his sexual preference, not understanding that he’s still working through it himself.
When she calls him out about it in front of the troupe, there’s some ahead-of-its-time investigation about the dangers of outing someone’s sexuality when they’re not ready. The tension is real, but both Shook’s and Forrest’s performances convey that they both truly care about one another.
Pippin’s arc creates an interesting contrast to Rocky (Cynthia Adler), the only woman knight in the troupe who also happens to be an out and proud lesbian. On one hand, the “one of the guys” lesbian is a bit of a stereotype, but she’s also so well-written and performed by Adler that one could forgive Romero for playing into a trope.
Also at play in Knightriders is Romero’s penchant for playing with tone. He fully realizes the bizarre nature of a group of people who fight each other on motorized horses, so he’s not afraid to play up the premise’s silly nature while also avoiding turning it into a big joke. He sets up dynamic set pieces, from extended mock battles among the troupe to not-so-mock skirmishes they have with local ruffians that flock to their various shows. This is all backed by a playful soundtrack from Donald Rubinstein, who injects some Renaissance faire flavor into his adventurous score.
Since this is Romero we’re talking about, however, there’s a sense of something sinister lurking under the adventure, and most of it centers on Billy. He can’t come to terms with the changes happening around him, and Ed Harris comes out of the gate in his first leading role with a performance that makes you both admire, fear, and feel sorry for Billy all at the same time. In a movie where everyone else seems to grow and find themselves, you just can’t shake the feeling that Billy may be going in a different direction, even as he becomes aware of his own shortcomings. It’s sad, partially because Harris’ performance is such that one can’t help but feel for him, even with his significant flaws.
It’s really a shame that Knightriders didn’t make a bigger splash at the box office, because it would have been nice to see what Romero could have done with more movies that didn’t have “of the Dead” in the title (yes, I know that he did plenty of non-zombie horror movies, but just let me make a damn point here). Knightriders proves that his knack for making us collectively look in the mirror wasn’t predicated on his ability to scare us, and that great filmmakers can find substance in seemingly the oddest of places.