Review: Knightriders (1981)

Knightriders (1981)
Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Gary Lahti, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman. Written and directed by George Romero.

Ed Harris plays Billy, known in his traveling Renaissance fair as King WIlliam. His troupe includes musicians, craftsmen, jesters, jugglers, and motorcycle-riding knights who joust for the favor of Queen Linet and the chance to usurp Billy from the throne.

Some troupers are committed to Billy’s Arthurian ideals. Others just love motorcycles. Still others are along for the counterculture dropping-out, roaming wherever the wind and road take them. Billy is aware of these motivational disparities and tries, by forces of conviction and charisma, to lead his motley crew through financial insecurity to some vision only he seems to grasp.

A weird convergence of personalities sends the group into conflict when a TV producer, her photographer, a talent promoter, and a crooked cop all get involved just when one of Billy’s knights aspires to the throne.

This movie is out there, but writer-director George Romero has captured something I’ve thought about a lot since my days in college in the early Nineties. Underneath the spectacle of jousting men (and one woman) on motorcycles is a cause, but most people — insiders and outsiders — don’t understand the cause or don’t care about it, appreciating the mini-society for their own reasons, which may be commercial, hedonistic, or romantic.

Billy also deals with tension between people’s admiration for him and his wanting them to care about the vision, not the visionary.

I’m reminded of how Flower Power began as one thing, then became many things to many people for their own reasons. I wasn’t really around for that, but I was on college radio when Nirvana exploded, and I was 15 credits from graduating when Kurt Cobain shot himself. I saw a great deal of the 90s grunge scene, with its attendant cultural-fashionable-commercial appropriation, in Billy’s traveling circus.

Strictly on its narrative and flavor, Knightriders is somehow engaging even with a lead character I never really understand and antagonists I don’t much care about or believe in. The action really drags in poorly framed, too-long sequences, and supporting characters’ arcs are resolved too quickly and with little explanation. Yet I find a few characters intriguing, like Steve the motorcycle-riding lawyer, Sheila the TV producer, and Merlin the shamanistic first-aid doctor. Combined with Billy’s conviction and dissatisfaction, the positives outweigh the flaws and make it an unpredictably satisfying watch.


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