Parked in-between 1978’s Dawn Of The Dead and 1982’s Creepshow, George A Romero’s non-horror 1981 oddity Knightriders represents the venerable director’s most personal and intimate work. It’s a reflection upon the travelling showbiz carnival that moviemaking becomes, with the on-screen trials and tribulations of a cycle-worshipping fayre holding up a mirror to Romero and his crew’s own experiences.

It’s also a canny reworking of the King Arthur myth, its concurrent release with John Boorman’s Excalibur perhaps explaining some of its failure to click with audiences of the time (an unfortunate case of life imitating art, given the script’s preoccupation with the clash between conviction and commercialisation). While it’s a scrappy, sprawling piece that could easily have been edited down to a more manageable length, it’s stuffed with charismatic actors giving heartfelt performances and its wistful appreciation for a dying way of life makes it memorably affecting.

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As ruler of the travelling Fight Or Yield motorcycle jousting show, King Billy takes his role very seriously. Perhaps too seriously, as his refusal to deviate from his own Arthurian code is starting to alienate his fellow knights, particularly main rival to the throne Morgan. Suffering debilitating injuries, run-ins with corrupt cops and threats of mutiny from his compatriots, Billy starts to increasingly lose his temper as well as his grip on reality. The temptations of selling out and cashing in creep into the group, leading to confrontations that may shatter their spirit and send them crashing down to earth.

The pastoral woodland opening ambiguously toys with our expectations of a period piece, reminiscent of Martin in its depiction of a fantasy world that blurs with our hero Billy’s reality. Ed Harris’ legendary intensity is on display right from the start, as Billy, waking from obsessive dreams about a pursuant raven before self-flagellating naked in a creek. Romero then revs up to remind us of the present day actuality with an extended set-piece tournament that introduces all the main players, including John Amplas – Martin himself – as a joyfully fleet-footed mime and Tom Savini – already something of a ‘Sex Machine’ – as the headstrong but respectful Morgan (there’s even an amusing Stephen King cameo).

These lengthy scenes of the community hard at a work that is also their play set the tone for what’s to come, with a fragile society of misfits clearly bound together out of love but already pulling in different directions. For the Romero-savvy viewer, it’s even more bittersweet than it would have been at the time, since aside from Dawn Of The Dead leads Ken Foree and David Emge, many of the bit-part players are recognisable from prominent roles in subsequent films such as the aforementioned Creepshow and Day Of The Dead.

There’s much more to Knightriders than spotting zombie-fodder however; the character dynamics and vast range of issues the script tackles really put it in a realm of its own. From Werner Shook’s conflicted queer to Christine Forrest’s jilted ‘grease-monkey’ and Patricia Tallman’s fawning groupie on the lam from an abusive father, Romero tackles all sorts of personal crises head-on, finding time for everyone to shine. A few members of the ensemble make the drama feel dated now – Brother Blue’s scat-happy Merlin and John Hostetter’s jovial Tuck are occasionally cringe-worthy – but for the most part everyone contributes something significant, bringing depth to their idiosyncratic roles.

The curious blend of post-Easy Rider narcissism and hard-fought idealism makes for plenty of arresting scenes that highlight many of the by-then auteur’s concerns: Harris’ outburst about ‘fighting the dragon’ speaks volumes about Romero’s attitude to the Hollywood system, while his mystical conflict with a symbolic raven shows how much the director exorcised his demons with his confrontational horror. As Billy’s behaviour becomes more erratic and members of the group break away from him, it becomes clear that the director realises that his crew depend upon him and worries about how much rests upon his shoulders. For all that though, his much-trumpeted generosity shines through in the amount of attention he gives to the supporting players.

Harris bristles with self-righteous intensity but also conveys Billy’s all-consuming mania well, his transition to true nobility handled in moving fashion. Savini is especially enjoyable as an heir to the throne with a gleam in his eye, while John Lahti makes a solid Lancelot-type whose role grows more poignant as the story develops. The ladies fare well too, with Amy Ingersoll an emotive foil for Harris as his long-suffering queen and voice of reason Linet and Patricia Tallman especially charming in a role that could easily have grated were it not for her naïve energy and nuance.

Technically, there’s much to revel in: Michael Gornick’s sparkling cinematography makes a change from the usual gloom Romero called upon him for, while Richard Rubinstein’s elegant score flits effortlessly between medieval atmospherics and jazzy contemplation. The stunts during the many motorcycle battles are also a joy to behold, while the deliberately makeshift costumes also add to the endearing aesthetic - the script acknowledges this as a sign of the troupe’s ingenuity in the face of limited budgets as opposed to mere cheap thrift, another doff of the cap to the world of independent film-making.

The bike-battles can, however, grow tedious and are at times bewildering. The necessity for helmets and the surplus of characters makes it difficult to keep up with who’s on the horse at times, while the sheer amount of dangerous stunts makes them monotonous in themselves after a while. Meanwhile, the script’s lack of focus can leave the viewer frustrated, with several character arcs feeling rushed and some characters introduced too late in the game to feel anything other than under-developed despite their obvious importance.

Romero also doesn’t know when to stop, driving on past what would have made an ideal ending to indulge in anti-establishment posturing and his customary downbeat melodramatics. Of course, these will be recognisable tics for his fans that add further depth to an already expansive canvas, and there’s no doubting the sincerity of his messages, but for the average viewer the final 15 minutes will feel like an unnecessary appendage.

Despite a few flaws, Knightriders’ sense of soul and well-observed character drama sets it apart from the many hippie comedown flicks of the preceding 1970s. It’s an unheralded cult classic and an essential cornerstone of Romero’s canon, representing his most human and impassioned work. His sheer imagination and cojones in embarking on the project are clear to see, and it’s a lovely time capsule for a now-distant era where independent film-makers could marshal tight but large crew-families to bring such idiosyncratic expressions to glorious life.

Reviewed on: 20 May 2013
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The head of a mediaeval re-enactment troupe begins to lose his grip on reality.
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