Review: Knightriders (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #654

Number of Views: One
Release Date: April 10, 1981
Genre: Drama
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $3,000,000
Running Time: 145 minutes
Director: George A. Romero
Producer: Richard P. Rubinstein
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Special Effects: Larry Roberts
Cinematography: Michael Gornick
Score: Oscar Brown, Jr., Donald Rubinstein
Editing: Pasquale Buba, George A. Romero
Studio: Laurel Productions
Distributor: United Film Distribution Company
Stars: Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Tom Savini, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Brother Blue, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Martin Ferrero, Warner Shook, Randy Kovitz, Harold Wayne Jones, Albert Amerson, Christine Forrest, Cynthia Adler, John Hostetter, Amanda Davies, Bingo O’Malley, John Amplas, Joseph Pilato, Stephen King

Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] Rick Wakeman “Galahad”

[2] Händel Messiah “Hallelujah Chorus”

[3] Oscar Brown Jr. “Signifying Monkey”

[4] Donald Rubinstein “I’d Rather Be A Wanderer”

When the news filtered through that one of my greatest personal heroes, George A. Romero, had taken his ultimate bow, my head couldn’t help but spin wildly. How could this be? Not George. It wasn’t his time. He still had so damn much to say. Like any other lifetime horror aficionado, my heart sank to the pit of my stomach and I hadn’t the vaguest inkling how to process this undesirable data.

I couldn’t tell you a solitary thing that happened for the remains of the day but I can tell you I laid awake in a state of deep shock until the Sandman eventually came along to relieve me of my fretful duties. As I woke the next morning and cursed the fact that it hadn’t just been a terrible nightmare, the only thought in my mind was to honor my idol the best that I could. Writing about my loss was out of the question as it was still way too raw to even attempt to put into words. Therefore there could only be one way to pay the due respect.

I like to think myself as decidedly well versed with regards to Romero’s work and have lost count of the amount of times I’ve watched his numerous classics in wide-eyed awe. However, there has been a chink in my armor for far too long not to feel utterly ashamed as I have never allowed myself the exclusive pleasure of Knightriders. To be fair, it’s notoriously hard to track down, and was just as elusive way back in 1981 when it failed to show up in my local video parlor.

I’d imagine this has something to do with the fact that it isn’t a horror film in any shape or form and never seemed comfortable sandwiched in-between Dawn of The Dead and Creepshow on his résumé. It also didn’t help that the legend of King Arthur held little appeal to me and, shamefully, I allowed the years to pass without making any great effort to right my wrongs.

It just so happens that, mere weeks before the news broke of his passing, I’d managed to procure an all singing and dancing Blu-Ray, thanks to the good folk at Arrow Video and it felt like destiny was calling as I pondered which of his many masterpieces with which to mark the occasion affectionately. I’d not done my homework where Knightriders was concerned so had no idea that it is commonly regarded as his most personal project.

It just felt right to break my duck at such a monumental moment and there’s a reason for that. You see, it was very much right. I could reel off the entire Romero back catalogue top to bottom like Johnny Five would a grocery list and also tell you that not a single one of his other works has delivered me closer to his beating heart. I believe it’s high time I redeem myself, don’t you?

For anyone else wearing the hat of shame right now, select your steed and check it has sufficient gas in the tank as we’re off to the renaissance fair for some good old-fashioned medieval revelry. The horses have long since bolted I’m afraid and I’m fairly certain the knights of the round table didn’t ever make it to Pittsburgh either. I’ve heard of Cosplay but never in all my years have I witnessed such mass delusion.

Actually I hear they prefer to be known as medieval hobbyists and wish it to be known that I wouldn’t dream of making fun of their personal beliefs. I just wish some bastard had told me in advance as I feel like something of a twat in my cosmonaut suit. Pluck it and fuck it, I’ll just try my best to blend in and look inconspicuous, although that’s easier said than done with some hootenanny-ready hick prodding your oxygen tank because he’s had one too many cold ones.

Anyways, enough of that codswallop, it’s time for the noble King William (Ed Harris) to make his public address and I’m itching to find out what he has planned for today’s festivities. Last spotted self-flagellating with a limp reed in a misted lake as kings do, he is now ready to take a seat on his throne alongside his own person Guenevere, good queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll), and oversee the royal tournament.

Up next is the joust, whereby any pretenders to the throne battle it out on their motorized steeds for the right to be called champion. This is the event the crowd come to see and there’s a banquet laid on in their honor boasting only the finest hot dogs and corn on the cob. You see, only the very best bellytimber at Camelot.

Among those throwing down the gauntlet today are the Lancelot to Billy’s Arthur, Alan (Gary Lahti), hard-riding female knight Rocky (Cynthia Adler) and the dastardly black knight Morgan (Tom Savini). To be fair and just, Morgan’s not so treacherous, just a little too big for his breeches is all.

You could say he’s a wind-sucker, a hufty-tufty, braggart and swine – but he’s not looking to cuckold his king, merely replace him when the time is right and with his personal blessing. Honor and virtue are imperative traits in William’s Camelot and he flat-out insists on such from his troupe. That said, his constant pig-headedness is beginning to make a few loin cloths itch.

Thankfully, he has his very own Merlin (Brother Blue) on hand to keep his broadsword grounded in stone. Not so much magician as really wise black dude, Merlin is however a wizard of the soul and the closest our ruler has to a life mentor. It just so happens that Billy’s going to need all the sound advice he can get as the tyrannical Sheriff Rilly (Bingo O’Malley) is planning chicanery most foul as we speak and that means lightening the royal vault of its gold by way of unlawful tax demands.

Worse still, there’s some slimy suited scoundrel by the name of Bontempi (Martin Ferrero) sniffing around the moat, looking to curry favour with anyone perched on the raiments over whether or not to forsake their kingdom. This, my fellow noblemen and women, is what is commonly known as a red-letter day.

With the long arm of the law lubing up for insertion beneath William’s tail plate and bogus promoters loitering with intent to plunder, the time for revaluation appears nigh. After all, there is evidently unrest within the ranks, costs are ballooning, inflation is growing ever more bitchy and spiteful, the price of gas is on the up and up, and his loyal subjects are demanding greater coinage for the risks they’re taking in the name of the king.

The problem is that placing a bejeweled crown atop one’s barnet tends to tally with a divine right to do whatever pleases its wearer, and bugger anyone else who believes their opinion counts. Here, allow me to elucidate further by way of hearty analogy.

Twas many moons back and I resided very much within a court hierarchy with two fellow bucks and not a splash of estrogen in sight. Every Saturday night without folly, we three gallant knights would battle it out for supremacy using the royal Xbox to beat one another into mulch until only one remained standing. Once a victor had been decided and bragging rights for the foreseeable pocketed, the sacred crown would be placed lovingly and with only the vaguest of bitterness on the brow of the weekly champion, granting them exemption from household chores for a full seven days.

“There can only be one king at one time. That’s the law”

We each took these duels very seriously indeed, no-one more so than the guy who emerged triumphant from around two-thirds of our bouts. Alas this was not your friend and humble narrator but brave King Daniel and he couldn’t help but grow a little hoity-toity beneath all those crown jewels. A dash too much self-importance aside however, he always stood dignified and with a brimming heart, much like King William from our tale here. The point to my short fable is this – we may not always like Billy a great deal, but we have learned to love him. After all, none of this would have been possible without one so chivalrous and true. I therefore raise a chalice, to both Kings Daniel and William, and we may now return to the daily flogging as per the flyer.

Knightriders is long. 145 minutes of long. Slide that around your pugil stick and poke it. I’ve heard it uttered that such a lengthy running time is a little indulgent on Romero’s part and scoff wildly at such rancid suggestion. You see, one thing it could never be held culpable of is rambling and, while bona fide incident is spread thinly across the duration, it is never anything less than supremely buzzworthy throughout.

Whether drinking in stunts so bone-crushing that you’ll feel the concussion, sitting around the fire chanting medieval verse, or being made privy to the wondrous juggling skills of the court merrymaker Whiteface (John Amplas), one thing you’ll never feel is bored. And you can send me to the stocks if I’m mistaken.

Given that we have been robbed of our beloved King George, it seems only correct that we lead our own renaissance in his honor. Watching Knightriders is a splendid starting point as it has never been more poignant than currently and is undoubtedly his most intimate address. And how’s this for a group hug? Romero mainstays Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Warner Shook, Joe Pilato, and future spouse Christine Forrest are just some of the familiar faces that populate Camelot.

Hell, even the legendary Stephen King grabs a picnic blanket, alongside his wife Tabitha for additional monarch points. Besides, who doesn’t want to kick back with that lovable lionhearted rogue Savini? Tell me you don’t want to kiss this face and I’ll slap both yours cheeks with a herring.

When all is said and done and the festivities have drawn to a close, it’s Harris who rules this kingdom with a fist of iron. The 30-year-old actor from Tenafly, New Jersey had received but a solitary whiff of the silver screen prior to being crowned King William and, in a sparkling career spanning five decades, his sovereign turn as Billy is the jewel in his crown.

Sporting a pair of bright ocean blues that pierce like lances, the ferocity and heart of a proud lion, and the motorbike prowess of king of the petrol heads, Evil Knievel, he crosses our palms with ample silver and Romero’s casting has seldom been so inspired. Actually, scrap that. Romero’s casting is ever inspired. I mean, who better to play loyal Merry Andrew and tug our heart cables through mime alone than Amplas? The tears of a clown have never looked so becoming.

We’re lost without George. Let’s face it, his untimely departure leaves behind it a throne that could never possibly be filled and neither would we seek to ever replace him. However, just look at the Camelot he has created. Knightriders is one long renaissance fair of a movie, a joyous celebration of all things Romero and a safe haven to be whatever and whomever our hearts desire.

Be we gay or straight, black or white, grease monkey or dumb ape matters not – only that we are true of soul. His reign may appear to be over to the average bystander, but it’s the fact we know damn well it’s not that makes us unique and special. The king is dead? Nay, I say long live the king.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Read Martin Appraisal
Read Dawn of the Dead (1978) Appraisal
Read Day of The Dead (1985) Appraisal
Read Creepshow Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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  1. This brought a wistful smile to my face. I love your approach to the film review. I don’t think it could have been written any other way and have the same effect that feels just right here. I have not seen it before, but your words have moved it up my must see list.

    1. This is the whole reason I do what I do. To be able to spread the love on someone as dear as George pleases me hugely. Thank you so much and, I assure you, you’ll love every second in Camelot.

  2. I was fortunate enough to be going to college in a little town outside of Pittsburgh in the 80s. George was a prince of that city.
    I worked behind the scenes on the college cable station’s movie critic show & feel deprived that we missed this one!
    Ed Harris was so striking so far removed from the ill tempered Westworld fellow.
    I do love Arthurian legend so this is unique enough to trigger my interest. Someday I will hunt it down! GREAT review, Rich!

    1. It thrills me to my core that you will one day watch this glorious movie. It almost feels like there was a reason I’d never given it the time until now. I took tremendous comfort from watching and it will always be dear to me from hereon in.
      Ed Harris really is a knockout in this, as are all of his royal subjects. But Ed, damn he’s in Billy 100% and wears him like a gown.

      1. An old acting chum of mine met Ed and she said that intensity just shines through him like a beacon. He immerses himself in roles & that is why he is so believable.

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