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What you have to understand about George A Romero is that he chose to stay independent. Over the course of his career he made films with studios – with mixed results – but when Night of the Living Dead was an unexpected smash Romero could have cashed in and left Pittsburgh behind. Except that wasn’t who he was, and the filmmaker stayed home and stayed indie.
For the next decade he busted his ass; he followed up Night with some forgotten films, and along the way he made a quiet masterpiece, Martin. It wasn’t until ten years after Night that he again struck gold, this time with the sequel Dawn of the Dead, also independently produced. Instead of going Hollywood Romero opted to pivot from that success and make what might be his most personal movie, the movie that explains his intense desire to stay indie for as long as possible: Knightriders.
While Romero’s name is now synonymous with the living dead, Knightriders is not a horror movie. It’s not even a genre movie, although its poster – with a medieval knight on a motorcycle – could convince you that he had made some sort of dystopian post-apocalyptic film. No, Knightriders is essentially a straight drama, set in the then-present, and without any fantastical elements and with limited violence. It’s a movie about artists, and it’s the movie that defines Romero’s ethics.
King Billy (Ed Harris) leads a troupe of medieval motorcycle performers; they dress up like Ren Faire folks and engage in jousting and battle while riding motorcycles. They travel from town to town and live by an Arthurian chivalric code. To outsiders it could look like a lark, but Billy takes it seriously and for him the troupe means more than just a job or show business. This is how he lives a life that fits his personal ideals.
The troupe has been gaining traction; over the years they’ve grown and so have the crowds. Agents from the West Coast have taken an interest, and they want to book the troupe in bigger and better venues. Billy isn’t interested, but some of the other performers – especially Sir Morgan, the Black Knight (Tom Savini) – see the possible paycheck. The stress begins to break the group apart just as Billy begins to have prophetic dreams about his own death.
If Martin is Romero’s quiet masterpiece, Knightriders is his perfectly flawed one; it’s shaggy and long and can at times seem unfocused. But that’s because Knightriders is less driven by its narrative and more driven by its characters and its beliefs; this is a movie that’s slack when it comes to story but tight when it comes to world building and atmosphere. Romero, who wrote as well as directed, is masterful in how he constructs the troupe and introduces them, and their society, to us.
Knightriders opens with Billy out in the woods, flagellating himself in a river after having had sex with his queen, Linet (Amy Ingersoll). This opening scene, which concludes with Harris pulling his sword out of the dirt, could have been in Excalibur which, somehow, opened the exact same weekend as Knightriders. But the medieval illusion falls away quickly as Billy gets on his motorcycle and the couple race back to the troupe.
What follows is an extended introduction as we meet the characters as they prepare for a show. It’s like the wedding in Deer Hunter – long, maybe loose, but serving to establish everything you need to know about everyone. There’s a little bit of exposition – handsome knight Alan picks himself up a local girl, Julie Dean (Patricia Tallman), who has come to see the troupe – but mostly Romero allows us to soak in the world of the Knightriders. We see the small ways characters interact, and through those interactions we begin to get a sense of who everyone is; Knightriders is one of those movies where you may not know every character’s name at the end but you certainly know their story and how they think and behave.
What Romero sketches for us here is a group that is founded on the principle of giving a good show to the people while still staying true to their values. It may be a show but the combat is real – the jousts are actually decided by skill, and not planned in advance. Within that structure is a willingness to test boundaries; weapons master Little John (Ken Foree) has built a new mace for Sir Morgan, one that is heavier than the usual weapons used, one that could actually hurt somebody. Billy checks it out and gives the okay to use it in combat, despite the serious misgivings of his other knights. But that’s Billy – this isn’t a show, this isn’t an entertainment, it’s a way for men to test and prove themselves.
Billy takes this so seriously that he’s kind of a dick about it. A kid shows up to the performance with a motorcycle magazine that happens to feature a spread about Billy; the King is surprised to see this and when the kid wants an autograph he aggressively declines. Autographs and magazine spreads are the antithesis of why Billy is doing this – he’s not here to be famous, or to be rich, he’s here to live free the way he believes a man should live. There’s a righteous purity to what Billy does.
And he truly lives by it. Part of the life of being a traveling show is getting hassled by local police, but Billy won’t pay bribes. When a fat cop shows up and plants weed on one of the cast members, Billy insists on going to jail with him. It’s virtuous and it’s stupid, it’s brave and it’s poor decision making – this sums Billy up quite well.
Billy is the independent filmmaker, and the troupe is his cast and crew. What’s more, Billy is Romero – dedicated to his ideals, avoiding acknowledgement and riches, and just trying to do what he thinks is the right thing to do. It’s fascinating to look at Billy through this lens, as Billy is – on a character level – quite unlike the rambunctious, beloved (and exceptionally tall) Romero. But the director identifies with his hero’s single-minded pursuit of an ideal, no matter how foolish it can be.
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