Knightriders (1981) is easily the gentlest film ever made by George Romero, a romantic story of gypsy bikers who create a kind of traveling Renaissance faire built around the chivalric ideal of an Arthurian court.
There’s a streak of the Camelot story played out all in modern times, but on a more intimate, human scale which Romero uses explore the dynamics of idealists in the real world who play-act their fantasies in a communal setting. Ed Harris took his first leading role as Billy, the benevolent king of the troupe and the man who created this scruffy nomadic community and struggle to hold on to his singular vision as the troupe grows. He’s a moral rock but also unbending and at times fanatical in his devotion to the code, which takes its toll on the individuals who joined this collective ideal for reasons of their own.
Tom Savini, Romero’s special effects artist and a memorable biker co-star of Dawn of the Dead, is quite striking as the charismatic “dark knight” Morgan, who has no investment in the Arthurian ideal but likes the spirit of competition and the charge of jousting on cycles, and Brother Blue is the troupe’s Merlin, a medical doctor dropout turned shaman and storyteller, but the entire cast meshes in the most naturalistic ensemble of Romero’s career.
Romero is so devoted to their stories that he lets the film run on the long side and fudged some of the practical details and decisions for the sake of dramatic moments, but he’s committed to keeping their shows firmly in the world of permits and insurance and first aid tents and making accommodations to modern society a matter of degree where opinions differ. The stunt work is excellent but down to earth, executed with a mix of circus showmanship and gearhead sportsmanship. Getting rough is part of the deal, but it’s all in fun.
For all the medieval throwback of clashing swords, suits of armor and knights on motorbikes, Knightriders isn’t a fantasy. It’s a modern film about the difficulties of sustaining an idealistic alternative to the material world, sixties values meeting human nature, and Romero views it with optimism. The folks that this band attracts are not all of one mind, but they are ultimately bound by a sense of community and commitment to an ideal.
The Blu-ray from Shout Factory is mastered with vivid color (it brings out the rich greens of the forest scenes that set the idyllic tone of the film) and a clean image with only minor signs of wear. It looks great and features the commentary track recorded by director George Romero, actors Tom Savini, John Amplas, and Christine Romero, and film historian Chris Stavrakis for the Anchor Bay DVD release over a decade ago plus vintage video footage of the motorcycle stunt riding. Exclusive to the disc are three new interviews with Romero, Savini and Ed Harris, who has nothing but good memories of the film and pride for his performance.