Saturday, June 18, 2011

Knightriders, by George A. Romero, Starring Ed Harris: A Movie Review

One of the nice things about how much video is out there online or on DVD is that I can do reviews of my favorite movies even though they aren't up at the theater and haven't been for a long time.

One of my favorite movies is a film called "Knightriders" written and directed by George A. Romero and starring Ed Harris. Romero is best known for his low budget horror movies and while this movie is low budget if falls more under the "heroic fiction" category than the horror category. (Although there is a brief cameo by Stephen King who plays a member of an audience who is obnoxiously commenting on things that he is seeing without really knowing what he's talking about. He's really good at it too.) 


Here's the gist of the story. Billy (Ed Harris) is the King Arthur of a small band of motorcycle riding knights. They travel from town to town making a living by putting on shows in which they joust from cycle back. The entertainment that they give to, and the money that they make from the audiences are secondary. The knight's status in their small community is determined by how well they do in the jousts.

While there is an indication that the truth, justice and chivalry that these knights believe in is pretty much the same as you would expect from any heroic knight, all we really see them fighting for is their small, albeit diverse, community which includes people from multiple ethnicities and gay men and women. For some of them it's about the bikes. For some it's the freedom of the open road. For others it's just about living an alternate life style. For some it's about fun. For King Billy it's about the heroic ideal.

The knights are the ruling class of this small community, but not the only members, they have picked up a lot of other people who love the dream, so they have mechanics who work on the bikes and vendors who sell food and handmade jewelry at the shows. They have jugglers and musicians and their camp is a cross between a renaissance fair and a Society for Creative Anachronism event. I should point out that the movie was released in 1981 and shows a lot of 1970's counter culture influence. Much of what is progressive about the way these people live their lives is no longer as shocking as it was then.

Our merry band has three basic problems. The first is that they are misfits who don't really belong anywhere who are living a gypsy lifestyle. They encounter all of the problems that you would expect living on the road, corrupt law enforcement, ignorant and sometimes hostile townies etc. That's to be expected. Their bigger problem is themselves. They've grown too large. It costs them too much money to feed and outfit the troupe. They just don't have the money to keep going the way that they are.

The solution to this problem seems obvious. They are amateurs when it comes to show business but they've attracted enough attention that show business sees potential in them. Motorcycle magazines have been doing pieces on them and a promoter wants to sign them and get them out of playing small towns and into doing city shows. There is even talk of booking Vegas. However, King Billy keeps the option of going Show Biz off the table. It's not about the money, it's about the dream. It's about freedom. Keeping to a promoters schedule and performing the show in ways that are about making money rather than about their method of self rule is a violation of everything the group is about.

Not everyone agrees. About half of the knights, lead by Sir Morgan, the Black Knight (Tom Savini), are in favor of selling out for the money. The other half, want to keep with the dream but even some of them (Gary Lahti, who plays Alan, the Lancelot type) think that it couldn't hurt to reach some sort of compromise and bring in some more money.

The third big problem is that there is something of a constitutional crisis. Leadership is determined by combat on motorcycles. Billy has received enough injuries of late that Alan, Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll) and Merlin (Brother Blue, check out his site, he really was living the dream until he passed away:, are opposed to Billy taking part in any more combats, his life is at risk. Seemingly in confirmation of that, Billy has been having dreams that he believes are prophetic about his death, but these dreams just seem to put Billy's mental health into question.

Billy is determined to live up to a set of ideals, the rest of the troupe can't get him to compromise with practical realities and therefore his leadership and his sanity are suspect.

In case you want to see the movie I won't go into detail about how the movie progresses from there but, it lives up to the heroic ideal.

Not only do I love this movie because it lives up to the heroic ideal (and so effectively parallels so many stories about Author and his knights), but also because it is chock full of very interesting characters with thought provoking sub-plots, for example:

Pippen (Warner Shook), a young man who is persecuted for being gay. Everyone knows he's gay except for he himself who questions who and what he is.

Angie (Christine Forrest), a tomboy grease monkey who isn't very feminine but who is deeply in love with Morgan, the black knight.

Julie (Patricia Tallman), a young woman who tries to escape from an abusive family and fails. (For those of you who may be fans of Babylon Five, this is the actress who plays the psychic, Lita. You won't be disappointed in her here.)

And that's just a few.

If you like low budget flicks, good stories, heroic fiction and great characterization, give it a view. It's also got lots of action. These people do, after all, joust from motorcycle back.

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