After the release of Dawn of the Dead in 1978 George A. Romero became hot property and a household name. Suddenly he found major distributors and production companies vying for his attention and it was this experience that gave inspiration for one of his most personal and oddest movies to date.
Knightriders, released in 1981, follows a renaissance fair travelling across a contemporary United States putting on tournaments. Their steeds are modified motorcycles and their armour is tinfoil but their belief in their way of life is far more real. Billy is their leader and king, haunted and driven by the need to impart something special to his subjects and audience, Billy rides alongside Morgan, the black knight, a friend who may have a knife hidden away for the right moment.
Knightriders follows no formulaic plot line; it barely has a plot at all as it follows this group across the American mid-west in a near aimless journey. The film is not about plot at all but character and it pushes its plot-less narrative as far as it is able. Again Romero turns his back on popular film with this approach, and as always it is difficult to tell if his sensibilities are behind or in advance of his contemporaries.
To think that Romero created this film after Dawn of the Dead is rather stunning as there is no attempt in Knightriders to capitalise on Dawns popular strengths: Knightriders is not a horror film and as such it contains no gore and very little that could be considered realistic violence, Knightriders contains a sprawling narrative that lacks any attempt at formula, and Knightriders seems almost designed to alienate the mainstream audience Dawn worked so hard to get on-side.
Even amongst Romero’s fans Knightriders is not high on lists of favourites. The film is approached in such an unusual way that many find it hard going and somewhat absurd.
The truth is that Knightriders is almost the perfect Romero film in that it portrays a philosophy that Romero has battled with throughout his entire career and no doubt his personal life as well. It is clear that the films lead, Billy played with marvellous affect by the always underrated Ed Harris, is as close as we will ever get to an autobiographical character from Romero. This is not to say that Romero sees himself as a king presiding over a kingdom, but rather that Romero is someone with a unique vision who battles endlessly to see his vision realised and understood by those around him.
The films introduction illustrates Billy’s perception of the world perfectly. There is calm to Billy’s world when he is left to his own devices. A deep spirituality that may not be readily apparent to the visitors to his troupes shows; but is there never the less. We see him bathing in a river deep in the forest; around him nature seems accepting of his intrusion. In fact his presence does not really seem an intrusion at all, he seems a part of it all; but perched on one tree is the ever present blackbird that we will soon realise represents something dark edging its way into this perfection.
The perfection is quickly broken when we discover we are in the contemporary world, not a fantasy kingdom. The juxtaposition of the Billy’s world and the outside world is something that reoccurs throughout the film. This leads, amongst other things, the notion that Billy’s internal world may not only be in a state of flux, but actually broken entirely. It could be considered that perhaps Billy is a man functioning with a psychotic break, desperately trying to marry his fractured mental landscape with the world outside.
This opening scene is unlike anything else Romero has produced. Visually there is an almost surreal quality to these opening shots, Romero clearly telegraphing to his audience that this is unlike anything they’d seen from him. The sound design, devoid of music at this point, has a simple brashness about it; alongside the visuals there is almost harshness to the beauty, an experimental approach taking a moment that could have been text-book to something far more affecting.
The clash we feel when the opening title is revealed with Billy and his Queen astride his motorcycle is a near physical assault and it is easy to imagine that many viewers guffaw at the sight. This is intentional, as this is the way the world sees Billy and his troupe; they are figures of fun and nothing more to most, but much like those few characters that make the attempt in the film, viewers who put in the effect are deeply rewarded.
Though Billy’s decisions are sometimes in question and his sanity sometimes more so, what is certain is Billy’s ability to lead others and the faith and love he inspires from them. Even the Black Knight who calls himself Morgan follows Billy’s lead, even through his complaints and jibes against the “fantasy king”; and despite his self-absorbed cynicism Morgan believes in Billy’s ideals but finds himself seduced by the outside world and its promise of riches.
This is the core of Knightriders and Romero’s inspiration for the film and its ideals; a close knit community battling bravely against corporate America to produce something of longevity and substance in a world that consists mostly of transience. Billy’s troupe and Romero’s troupe are almost identical, both need to create something of worth and strive to do it with independence and integrity.
Even the aforementioned notion that Billy might be suffering a psychotic break feeds into this analysis, there is a fine line that is often crossed by the creative mind and there has been more than one occasion when a creative person has found themselves lost too far on the other side of that line. Perhaps this is a comment Romero is making on the act of creation and the sustaining of such a creation once it has been made; as well as the toll this takes on those who do the job.
Another angle on the understanding of this film (similarly to Martin and Bruiser, and the “dry run” Jack’s Wife) is the possibility that all that transpires in it is merely a fractured mind making sense of the world around it. Perhaps Billy (as well as Martin and Bruiser’s Henry) are living a delusion so real to them that it becomes real to us. “Magical thinking” is at the forefront of these characters and their understanding of the world around them, their acceptance of bizarre notions unaligned with the people around them hinting at this alternative understanding of the films.
Again this is something that is rather unique to these particular films in Romero’s filmography, a far cry from the understanding through science that dominates the thinking of the Dead films or the deux-ex-machina of his studio efforts. Instead of these approaches Knightriders takes Martin’s lead and allows a more psychological approach.
It is no coincidence that Knightriders follows Martin’s example in almost every way. It uses that same non-actor’s in many key roles, and many of Romero’s friends and family take part, even Stephen King, the celebrated horror author and friend of Romero makes an appearance; no doubt taking time to discuss their upcoming film together during the shoot. Tom Savini and Christine Forrest return as a bickering couple that is not too far from what they were in Martin and, finally, Billy has many of the same attributes as Martin’s “Count” persona (not to mention many of the attributes shared by the “Dead” leads).
Knightriders works as an extension of the previous film, taking Martin’s themes of spirituality and personal identity and playing out as a group dynamic. Here we see how many different personality types battle with these notions. How some, in the guise of Morgan, will strive for acceptance and glory and others for a more cerebral approach to success.
The moral implications of the movie suggests that personal enlightenment is the only way to go and that, as with Morgan’s quest for glory, other routes to success are ultimately flawed. There’s a lot to say for this argument, and to a degree Knightriders preaches to the converted; but it is interesting to note that this is also one of Romero’s least liked films, especially by those less conversant in film grammar. What should be a relatively universal belief in self improvement and personal-honesty becomes “that one with the bikes from the guy who did the zombie films.”
Knightriders is far more than just “the one with the bikes”; it’s a heartfelt tragedy about ideals against adversity. It’s also a sly admission that perhaps a less idealistic approach may be the key to a philosophies survival.
As with his previous work Romero approaches the subject matter with his typical view to show human nature through good characterisation. For the first time however he has had a lead who is a match to his written work. Ed Harris plays Billy with all the quality that a viewer has come to expect from him, and produces one of the best pieces of work of his career. In fact there is such depth and complexity to Billy that it makes him a very difficult character to summarise. All aspects of a human being are accounted for, he is childish and austere, thoughtful and brash, passionate and thoughtless all at once; and all aspects bear in equal measure in what unfolds in the movie.
If it could be taken as read that Billy is a direct comment on Romero himself it could be said that Knightriders is a love letter to independent film making and the desire to keep it that way. It also seems that when the vast similarities between the group structure and philosophies of Knightriders and Romero’s own troupe is taken into consideration the movie cannot be taken as anything other than a comment on Romero’s own trials in his field. Never before or since has Romero, or any other director for that matter, expressed so openly his personal beliefs in this way, making Knightriders something truly special in independent film.
Like Dawn of the Dead Romero uses the spherical filming process, shooting in 35mm and then cropping the image to a 1:1.85, but that is where the similarity to that previous movie ends. Knightriders is filmed almost completely in exteriors, most of these in woodland areas and fields where the troupe take up camp. This provides the film with a richness of colour and broadness of scope that most of Romero’s other films lack.
The films connection with nature is another aspect that runs far and long through the films philosophy, the troupe are from a simpler age (or at least that is their intent) and their reliance on nature is a part of what allows their connection to their own spirituality.
This feeling of a simpler age extends wonderfully to Donald Rubinstein’s eccentric and beautiful score. Though it lacks the audio gymnastics of his previous compositions it is no less of a masterpiece than his work for “Martin”. Simple traditional compositions ease into dramatic incidental music with invisible grace, and as with Martin the music becomes another character under Rubinstein’s touch.
There are other elements that tie Martin, Knightriders and Romero’s lesser seen movie Bruiser together. They share a thematic grammar, composer and much character iconography as well as the obvious story themes; but there is one other surprising connection between these three movies.
It was not until 2000, almost a decade after Knightriders that Romero returned to this thematic trilogy with Bruiser and by this time the film industry had changed significantly.