A very young Ed Harris plays Billy who leads a travelling troupe of bikers who perform medieval style jousting contests and shows at various small towns in the US. Billy is the King and tries to live by a set of Arthurian standards and ideals. This conflicts with the needs of his group to make money as well as the blood sucking local law enforcement who demand pay off money. As Billy starts to take things more and more seriously he finds himself almost killed and starts to alienate his surrogate family who travel with him causing friction and rivalry in the group.
If this were made back in his heyday, Robert Altman would have made a hell of a film out of this, or maybe Paul Thomas Anderson could have done it back in the late 90s. Although Ed Harris’ character is the focus here along with his disintegrating sanity reflecting the crumbling American dream, all the other characters in this bizarre family get a look in as well. This is the most acting you have seen make up effects guru Tom Savini ever do and he does a hell of a good job playing one of Billy’s subjects who yearns for more than the paltry funds they make on their travels.
Most of the rest of the cast do an okay job, Romero stalwarts Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger pop up in support roles and the film even features a daring strand about a man coming to terms with his homosexuality, practically unheard of at the time. The women however don’t fare well at all, coming across as air headed groupies with the supposed Queen having to do nothing but look buxom and pout at all the macho bike riding going on around her. Perhaps because this is George Romero the performances are not as strong as the material should have demanded and some of the dialogue is terrible. It’s only really Ed Harris and Tom Savini who make the performances stick with the rest of the cast not really upping their game sufficiently. It seems at times like Romero was just happy to have fun revving bikes around and jousting and hoped that this would be enough.
Knightriders also shares a common complaint I have with Romero’s films in that it feels too long. Originally Knightriders had an 102 minute cut which was released in Europe but Arrow have here provided the full 145 minute cut and the film is something of a slog to get through. For the first forty-five minutes or so your attention is fixed on the film, the story and the bizarre sub culture you are presented with. Around the mid-point your attention flags as we focus on too many characters who are not that interesting as well as their money woes. The last 30 minutes the film comes to life again as Ed Harris becomes the focus once more. Giving you the two options of which version to watch wouldn’t have gone amiss but it’s good that the director’s vision is here for all to see.
Arrow Video continues to do amazing work with re-releasing cult items on Blu-Ray with fancy new covers and extra features and Knightriders is no exception. It is a film with great moments but they are only moments when the film should have been more concerned with providing a compelling whole. It remains an odd film in Romero’s filmography and for retro enthusiasts it’s a must see if you have the patience.