At the Movies: Knightriders (1981)

knightriders1981

Knightriders

★★★★½

1981 • 145 minutes • United Film Distribution Company

Knightriders isn’t, as some might think, the only non-horror film on zombie auteur George A. Romero’s dance card. In his early career, he directed the romantic comedy There’s Always Vanilla, and its utter lack of a legacy is proof that something can be willfully faded into obscurity via its creator hating it enough. But There’s Always Vanilla was Romero’s second film, released in 1971; Knightriders, released a decade later, came after a string of horror films, including the sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead. Knightriders, then, is quite an outlier in Romero’s filmography, but it would be in anyone’s, really: a personal drama about a Renaissance Festival troupe on the brink of collapse doesn’t exactly get butts in seats the way zombies do.

Which makes Knightriders is, even over thirty years later, an honestly refreshing and unique movie. I was surprised by how much I loved this movie, rewatching it recently; I got to the point where I could recognize its flaws but still sink into the film and its world like a hot bath, my eternally tense shoulders actually relaxing for once. It’s slow and awkward and elegiac and shaggy, and infinitely endearing because it is all of those things. And it is easily one of my favorite movies.

Knightriders follows a Renaissance Festival troupe headed by Billy “King William” Davis. They travel from town to town in the Pittsburgh area, setting up shop, jousting on motorcycles (because it’s the seventies, man), and generally trying to scrape together a living doing so. But the troupe is finally getting some national attention, which means that they need to start thinking of their troupe as less of a commune and more of a business. This conflicts mightily with Billy’s monomaniacal devotion to his chivalric ideals, and he refuses to even entertain the notion. The troupe can either evolve or disintegrate, and each member of the troupe deals with that in their own way.

And that’s it. Knightriders, despite the presence of Tom Savini’s Morgan the Black Knight, has no real villain, although the redneck cops that hassle the troupe and the entertainment lawyers that try to exploit them come close. But they’re products of a culture that everyone in the troupe has already abandoned in favor of Billy’s kingdom; they’re less antagonists and more just plain obstacles, by-products of trying to engage with a world that they know doesn’t understand them. Some members of the troupe falter, but they all ultimately flourish when push comes to shove. The bulk of the troupe all receive their own character arcs with satisfying and present development. In particular, Morgan’s character arc is affirming in a weird, lovely way that stays with you. People find answers to questions they’ve been asking; people find it in themselves to stand up to their lovers for what’s right or what is rightfully their due; and people do battle, literally and metaphorically, for their found family. It can feel like the film is meandering at times, which is completely true, but it adds up to a level of character development that makes it almost mesmerizing.

Knightriders’ biggest weakness is, surprisingly, its action sequences. Knights on bikes sounds, of course, totally radical, but they’re shot awkwardly that they end up being muddy. It’s hard to keep track of what’s happening, the framing is unengaging, and they drag on forever. Knightriders is already a pretty slow movie, so stopping everything This isn’t to say that every bike sequence is dull; watching some members of the troupe bike from town to town is calming, in a weird way. And a sequence wherein Dame Rocky and some of the other knights chase a group of skinheads out of the festival turns into a slapstick, cartoonish chase, culminating in a destroyed fruit stand.

It’s also diverse for 1981—I’m not going to say progressive, because it plays into some Magical People of Color tropes with the black Merlin and, later, the Native American Blackbird, who is credited only as “the Indian.” That’s just not cool and needs to be called out every time. But it does feature several black men with actual lines (yeesh, how low the bar is set), women with character arcs all of their own (including Rocky, Queen of the Badasses), and one of the earliest positive depictions of queer folk in mainstream American film in Pippin and Punch, who get together and stay together over the course of the film. It’s nice to see an old school sf(-adjacent) film that remotely looks like the world around us.

(Also, Stephen King has an extended cameo in this movie. NICE.)

I rented this film on iTunes.

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