Our review of Knightriders (1981) (Blu-ray), published October 28th, 2013, is also available.
The Games…The Romance…The Spirit…Camelot is a state of mind.
After Dawn of the Dead was a commercial success for director George Romero he wanted to make a personal film with multiple levels and textures, as well as a tale outside the horror genre. That film was Knightriders, a film about knights who joust on motorcycles in modern day, and went into instant obscurity as "nine people went to see it." Romero fans have resurrected this film in the video market, however, and now Anchor Bay has produced a fine DVD presentation. See a different take on the Camelot story, with a now-famous actor in an early role.
As a long time member of a Middle Ages re-creation group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), I myself have worn armor and gone into battle wielding swords, and studied the Code of Chivalry. This group, now a worldwide organization, was the inspiration to Romero for making Knightriders. He wanted to tell a tale of Camelot set in the modern day, with conflict between people who still wanted to follow the Code, and those who only lived for the action and fun.
Ed Harris (The Abyss) stars in his second picture as King William, a true knight who is misplaced by time into the modern day. He forms a group that is loosely based on the SCA and on Renaissance Faires that now appear all over the country, and travel about performing jousting and melee tournaments for people, with the only real change being that the knights ride motorcycles instead of horses. It is part road show and part serious, as they take steps to prevent lethal injuries and use modern conveniences to make the act better, yet the tournaments are quite serious, and establishes the pecking order among the men and women who chose to follow William into this unique lifestyle. Conflict arises when one of the knights named Morgan (makeup and effects artist Tom Savini, a staple of Romero films), wants to become king and take the group down the road of corporate sponsorship and more money. He is only in it for the rush of adrenaline in the fighting and his love of motorcycles; William is driven by the desire to return to a time where honor and bravery were part of what made a man. Unfortunately William is injured and risks permanent injury or worse if he fights again too soon.
There are several subplots and interesting characters working as well. A local girl falls for and travels with one of the knights, the handsome Alan (Gary Lahti). The girl is none other than Patricia Tallman, who starred in Romero's remake of Night of the Living Dead and is also of TV's Babylon 5 fame. Merlin is a medical doctor who has given up regular practice to travel with this group and patch them up after their numerous accidents, and tells stories and imparts wisdom with a musical beat and backup. Brother Blue, a Harvard teacher and storyteller, plays him wonderfully. There are romantic entanglements among the women who love these knights, a man who questions his sexuality, and a tryst straight out of the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere story. Hassles by local law enforcement, overly rowdy biker attendees of the tournaments, and other things crop up from time to time.
The driving force of conflict is a personal one for George Romero, who has normally preferred the independence of making films his own way and shooting in the Pittsburgh area rather than work in the big studio system, and is mirrored in the film. The group of knights is becoming more popular, and glitzy promoters would like to turn the group into a commercial project, with corporate sponsorship and more money, but at the price of losing what made them unique and accepting oversight. For the money driven and adrenaline contingent, this sounds just great, but others feel that this is an almost spiritual journey and prefer independence and camaraderie. In this way the group mirrors Romero's own films; which sometimes suffer for a lack of money and production values, but which get made the way HE wants them to be made.
As usual, you see the whole contingent of Romero players, including Tom Savini, John Amplas (Martin), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), and a host of others from the Dead films including Romero's own wife Christine. Their performances are often quite strong and reflect a great degree of character development; I found myself very interested in these people and their lives. There is even a cameo by writer Stephen King, which you can't help but notice. However, Ed Harris already shows the level of intensity he will be noted for later and steals the show in an often stellar performance.
The film is beautifully shot, with colors and spectacle that reminds you of the old Camelot often enough, though marred by the intrusion of modern day. In many ways modern life is the enemy in the film, which is mostly shown negatively, with unruly fans and corporate greed. If you like motorcycle stunts than you will be given a real treat here as you see dozens of spills, flying bikers, and some excellent riding. Here the motorcycle is simply the modern day horse. Costumes are excellent, though the armor worn by the knights ranges from authentic and interesting to ludicrous and fake. Here more money for production would have made a big difference.
I can't fault Romero's direction, which shows a keen eye for the camera and character, with one exception I'll discuss in the next section. This is his most personal tale, which shows in the care given to the shooting, which took an astounding 92 days. He was trying to show many layers of his personal belief woven into the story, such as the breakdown of modern society, the dangers and lures of rampant materialism and consumerism, and the corruption of honor in modern day. On all these levels I think he succeeded admirably. The corollaries to Camelot are numerous and obvious as well, and serves to show the dichotomy of the idealized sense of the past and the realistic glare of modern life. Here the film, like the SCA, shows this dichotomy very well, though both look at the past through decidedly rose-colored glasses. That in itself isn't a bad thing, shooting for the ideal.
I found the story intriguing, interesting, and even compelling on occasion. Though uneven in the level of performance and with definite editing problems, the film is a rare gem for Romero fans and those who thought he could only make zombie pictures.
Anchor Bay has done a stellar job with the transfer on this film. Using the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this anamorphic transfer really shines, especially for the age of the film. The source print is flawless, and there is only minor compression artifacts introduced in one or two places I noticed. Nothing distracting, however, and the film looks great. Colors are slightly washed out from the 20 year old status of the film, but not badly, and detail is sharp. The film looks terrific.
Purists will be happy to note the original mono soundtrack has been produced in 2-channel Dolby Digital mono. Sound is always clear and free of distortion, and you can always understand the dialogue, but the home theater buff in me would have loved to hear a 5.1 remix where my subwoofer could more accurately recreate the roar of the motorcycles.
Extras range from very good to bland, but a nice collection nonetheless. The feature length commentary track has director/writer George Romero, along with stars Tom Savini, John Amplas, Christine Forrest Romero, and film historian Chris Stavrakis. A lot of behind the scenes information is divulged, with a family reunion-like atmosphere as these folks are happy to relive the times together and talk again. You learn a lot about everyone involved in the film. The trailer, along with two TV spots are next, and then 13 minutes of home movies shot behind the scenes as a "documentary," but without sound. Romero should have included commentary over this as it gets old quickly not being able to understand what people are saying. A leaflet of production notes inside the case completes the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are only two problems with the film: the villain and the editing. Tom Savini is in his largest role and it is the first time he really needed to carry a part of the film himself. That he is pitted against Ed Harris stacks the deck, and he simply can't keep up. I will say he gave it a real effort, and is not truly bad, but again he can't compete as an actor with Harris.
Romero claims the first cut of the film ran 17 hours, and I suppose we are lucky that it "only" runs 141 minutes in the final cut. However, there is too much to keep pacing tight and the film should have lost about 20 to 30 minutes and would have actually been a better film for it. The editing itself is problematic, with some fight scenes running too long and others interspersed with conversation snippets that steal the intensity of the battle.
As for the disc itself, Anchor Bay continues to shun the community of deaf and hard-of-hearing folks by including no subtitles. I will continue to raise this issue until they start including them.
Overall I really enjoyed this unique and interesting film. Romero really reached down to tell a story rather than simply let gore and shambling zombies provide the conflict. Fans of Romero and people not yet exposed should at least give this a rental to see if it is your cup of tea, though speaking personally I'm happy to add it to my collection.
For "Babylon 5" fans of the testosterone-laden set, there is a brief nude scene of Patricia Tallman that might boost sales of the disc by itself.
Anchor Bay is fined for lack of subtitles (again) but commended for bringing this little known picture to DVD, and giving it a great anamorphic transfer. Romero and company continue to gain my respect, as he is one of my favorite horror film directors and I now have something outside that genre to watch as well.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary Track
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