Not to be confused with the ‘80s TV show starring David Hasselhoff, George Romero’s sadly neglected cult epic Knightriders has finally seen the light of day, coming to Blu-ray from Arrow Films on April 22nd. Written and directed by Romero and filmed in his beloved Pittsburgh, this is one of his few non-horror films and, as a result, has been ignored by genre loyalists too long. Knightriders relates the winding, iconic tale of King Arthur and his court by way of a late ‘70s motorcycle gang whose primary form of employment is performing in a traveling Renaissance fair, starring Ed Harris in his first major film role.
Billy (Harris) is the leader of a renaissance-obsessed motorcycle gang who entertains at renaissance festivals by jousting on their bikes. Billy, or King William as he is known, struggles with living up to his Arthurian ideals and realistically running a troupe whilst providing for everyone at the same time. A promoter looks to represent them, going against Billy’s ideals, but attracts some of his group. After making a number of bad decisions, Billy’s main rival, Morgan (Tom Savini), attempts to take the gang away from him by forcing members to chose between Billy’s romantic idealism and Morgan’s lucrative practicality.
This dreamy, mythic, and very personal film is an acquired taste, but the odd cast of characters will likely appeal to cult fans. In addition to Harris and Savini, author Stephen King makes an appearance, as does Romero regular Ken Foree. Though the film runs long at almost two hours, Knightriders is an interesting look at the faded idealism of the late ‘70s and will delight many genre fans because it is essentially a combination of Excalibur and other fantasy films and more melodramatic biker stories akin to Sons of Anarchy. As with Anarchy, the central figure of Knightriders is a man in a Shakespearean struggle to find a place in his world, and though he is the leader, his intense idealism always leaves him longing for something more.
Billy is a difficult, ultimately tragic figure, but Harris fittingly carries this compelling yet imperfect film on his shoulders. Knightriders is mostly only successful when Harris is on screen, as when he is not the central focus, the film suffers from too many superfluous characters and side plots. Though the group dynamic can be interesting, the financial woes of a band of outlaws are really just not that compelling. There is a surprisingly well-handled side story about a gay character accepting his sexuality and coming out, but the featured women are almost offensively one-dimensional. Savini, an actor in his own right, is fortunately at his best here and provides an excellent counterpoint to Harris.
Presented in an aspect ration of 1.84:1, the film looks absolutely beautiful, and Arrow has a done a great job with their restoration, which is a 1080p transfer encoded with MPEG-4 AVC. Although there is some mild evidence of aging, the color of the film looks particularly vivid and wonderful for an outdoorsy, warm-toned film. Arrow, as usual, doesn’t seem to have done a heavy-handed job of correcting the image, and I suspect here it looks the best and most organic that it ever will. This release definitely blows the original Anchor Bay DVD release out of the water.
The English LPCM 2.0 is the only audio track available, but it is lossless and sounds fantastic. The action sequences are clear, dialogue is clean, and the soundtrack from Donald Rubinstein sounds robust, but well mixed. Arrow has also included optional English SDH subtitles for the film.
There are a number of great extras that really make this release the essential Knightriders. There is a wonderful commentary track featuring George Romero, Tom Savini, John Amplas and Christine Romero. Also included are a series of lengthy interviews: Ed Harris speaks about his first starring role, Tom Savini discusses his role as the rival Morgan, and actress Patricia Tallman relates her experiences on the set. Further included is the theatrical trailer and TV spots. As with most of Arrow’s releases, the original artwork is available on a reversible sleeve and the collector’s booklet has some nice writing on the film from critic Brad Stevens, an interview with Donald Rubinstein, and an archival interview with Romero, as well as still and posters.
Even though it might not be a complete success, this is totally unique entry in Romero’s catalogue is a compelling filmmaking experiment. Knightriders is not a film for everyone, but fans of Romero or late ‘70s/early ‘80s cult cinema will want to check it out. No, this is not a classic Romero horror film, but, alongside the also-undervalued Martin, Knightriders is likely the director’s most personal and emotional work. It comes recommended and is one of my favorite of his films. Anyone into motorcycle-themed films will also find a lot to enjoy here. The Arrow release is region 2/B Blu-ray and DVD dual format edition, so it is only playable those with multi-region DVD or Blu-ray players.
– By Samm Deighan