Renowned horror auteur George A. Romero moved out of his comfort zone with Knightriders, a weirdly touching and wonderfully offbeat drama from 1981, which defies categorisation in many ways. At its heart, there’s an Easy Rider-like study of free-spirited, principled ideals within an increasingly conformist and capitalist society. A youthful-looking Ed Harris plays Billy – the self-styled king of a travelling medieval-themed troupe with a modern twist. Their steeds take the form of motorbikes, with which they perform dangerous, high-octane jousts and one-on-one clashes until a victor emerges to challenge the throne.
It’s the sort of violent, carnage-heavy display that the redneck locals go nuts for (author Stephen King has a fun cameo as a beer-swilling spectator), but the large group of performers and mechanics are continually struggling to keep things together financially. Their situation is further exacerbated when a greedy, fascist police officer at their new site begins trying to shake down Billy for licensing money. Group loyalties are then tested when the charismatic black knight of the crew, Morgan (make-up effects maestro Tom Savini), learns of a promoter with big bucks and an even grander direction to take the roadshow. Billy is vehemently opposed to the idea of selling out, and a rift splinters the company.
Clocking in at an indulgent two-and-a-half-hours running time, it’s to Romero’s credit that Knightriders remains supremely watchable throughout. It’s hokey as hell in parts, and the director sometimes shows an uncertainty in tone (resulting in some performances which are pitched a little too broadly) but those imperfections lend an endearing quality to the film. The archetypes from Arthurian legend are cleverly subverted here – particularly the Merlin of the group, who is the cool, wisdom-spewing black medicine man.
To call Harris’ Billy a man from another time is a vast understatement (the opening scenes see him arise, naked, from his slumber in the wilderness, before embarking on a gentle form of self-flagellation in the nearby lake), but he plays things admirably straight, and is committed to that world. It’s an oft-used expression, but Knightriders emerges as somewhat of a cult classic. Thanks to Arrow Video, this English folklore-inspired yarn – played out against a distinctly American landscape – can now be seen in pristine Blu-ray form for a new generation of fans.