Knightriders
U.S.A. / 1981
Directed by
 George A. Romero
Starring
Ed Harris
Gary Lahti
Tom Savini
Color / 145 Minutes / R
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
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2007 Reissue

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8
    8   10 = Highest Rating  
Guest Review by Rod Barnett
Simultaneously the most atypical and most personal of George A. Romero's films, this is a truly unique movie. Knightriders is the heartfelt and emotionally compelling story of a group of traveling show people who stage elaborate Renaissance Fair-style jousting competitions. The twist is that they conduct their combat on motorcycles instead of horseback. The film touches on several of the themes Romero plays with in most of his work, but Knightriders shows him at his most introspective and revealing. Can a person lead a life of nobility and honor without bowing to the baser parts of one's soul? Is it possible to avoid the pitfalls of greed, vanity and lust in a world as corrupt as ours without destroying what you hope to build? Is compromise the only way to get through life?
    The film opens with the traveling group in full flower but behind the scenes, cracks are growing. The troupe is presided over by King Billy (Ed Harris) who sees himself as a modern day Arthur and the people around him as Camelot. It quickly becomes evident that the knights are not just putting on a show for the curious spectators. They take the competition of the jousting and combat seriously as the way in which their extended family structures itself. Billy is the King by right of respect and skill at the games. He earned his place, and now there is a contender for the throne in Morgan (Tom Savini) who thinks that Billy's stiff refusal to bend his personal outlook is stupid and pointless. We see that some of the troupe is of the same mind as Morgan but most still adhere to Billy's leadership. Billy feels that the code he follows (and wants his people to follow) is the only way to maintain self-respect and honor. At one point he says he is fighting "the Dragon" and in many ways he is. He sees the pull to commercialize the group, which Morgan advocates, as exactly the wrong thing to do. He refuses to bend his sense of what is right to make money or please those who won't act honorably. When a wealthy promoter offers to set them up in major venues and make them rich, Billy refuses because it means pretending to be just entertainment. For him it isn't play acting it's a way of life. Rejecting Billy's decision Morgan and several other knights ride off with the promoter. The group fractures and those who stay are devastated, but Billy is sure they will return. He knows that Morgan's own sense of honor will force him to come back and try again to win the throne.
    Billy seems almost too stiff-necked in the early part of the film, going as far as to refuse to sign an autograph for a young boy. He refuses because it would validate the view of him as a Daredevil rider out to thrill the masses. In that action lies the beauty of the King's code of honor. It would be such a small thing to sign the picture and make the boy happy, but to do so would lay the groundwork for the boy to devalue his hero. If Billy is nothing but a stunt rider, why respect him? But if he is fighting for right and dignity in a corrupt world he is a worthy man and a worthy hero. It would make the kid smile, but would demean the hero. Earlier in the film he refuses to pay off a small town cop looking for a bribe, standing beside his harassed friend all the way to jail. It is this act (and its later follow up) that shows Billy living the code he has chosen no matter how hard it may be.
    Romero's script is a marvel of sharp observations and strong dialog. He effortlessly introduces over 20 characters with distinct personalities in a matter of minutes. Of course, he is helped considerably by a fantastic cast. Ed Harris, in his first leading role, is simply stunning. With a series of brilliant performances behind him now, it may seem easy to take his portrayal here in stride, but Harris is as good here as he has ever been. (Am I alone in thinking he is overdue for an Oscar?) Matching him perfectly is Tom Savini, who on the strength of his performance here should have gone on to an astonishing career as an actor, but I guess his genius with make-up effects kept him mostly behind the camera. Other notable performances come from Brother Blue as the troupe's Merlin figure (resident doctor and spiritual guide); Gary Lahti as this Camelot's Sir Lancelot; Christine Forrest as Morgan's lady love and mechanic; Warner Shook, Patricia Tallman, and even the film's music composer Don Rubinstein in a small but strong role. This movie was a labor of love for these folks and it shows in every frame.
   
Knightriders isn't a perfect film. It has a few flaws and its age is starting to show, but the performances and Romero's script shine through. If you've never seen this movie, please do. It's very entertaining and just might be Romero's best film. Maybe!

Anchor Bay's DVD of the film is easily the best it has ever looked on video. Previous tapes can now be retired forever and the Laser Disc released in the early '90s has been bettered both in sound and picture.
    The image is sharp and clear while the audio is near perfect. The picture is matted at 1.85:1 and while I have felt in the past that Anchor Bay's cropping of Dawn of the Dead was far too tight, here they seem to have gotten it right with everything looking beautifully framed and no heads lopped off. For you widescreen TV owners, the disc is also 16x9 enhanced. For the extras AB comes through once again with a great commentary track for the film. George Romero, Tom Savini and film historian Chris Stavrakis are joined briefly by John Amplas and Christine (Forrest) Romero for a funny, informative and touching discussion of almost every aspect of the production of the movie. Romero admits that his inspiration for the film was the Society for Creative Anachronism and the early Renaissance fairs of the 1970s. They all remark on the idea of Billy's "dragon" being commercialism, noting that the film's very uncommercial nature was one of the reasons for its poor box-office. The movie was filmed over the summer of 1980; Savini and Amplas repeatedly call it their greatest summer ever.
    Romero and Savini have done many commentary tracks before and I've always found them to be quite entertaining but this track is a highlight. It's wonderful to hear them talk about the movie and get misty-eyed during certain scenes. I came away from the commentary liking the film even more. Also included is a 14-minute selection of silent home movie footage taken during filming. It's interesting for many reasons; the behind the scenes shots of the stunt work are amazing. The disc is rounded out by the 3-minute theatrical trailer and two short, ineffective TV spots. 8/04/02
UPDATE The Anchor Bay disc reviewed here went OOP in 2006. It was reissued (using different cover art) the following year.
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