TBT: Knightriders (1981)

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As a longtime member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, I thought I had seen pretty much every bad medievaloid film there was, but turns out I had missed a significant milestone in the genre of cheesy films about dudes in armor: George A. Romero’s Knightriders (1981). I get the impression from my older SCA friends that this was something of their generation’s A Knight’s Tale, but instead of actually taking place in ye olde times, it takes place in the modern day. Oh yes, that’s because Romero was inspired by the SCA itself, and the liminal historical/modern space it occupies in the list of really intense hobbies that are also highly ridiculous when you step back a bit.

Let me be the first to admit that I fully realize how ridiculous the SCA looks from even the tiniest bit of distance, while also at the same time being super into to it. But when it comes to Knightriders, no one is as committed to their ridiculous hobby quite like Ed Harris’ character King Billy (or, more accurately, no one is as committed to their ridiculous hobby like Ed Harris is committed to playing King Billy).

“I can see my delusions from here!”

The premise of the film is that there’s this group of people who have formed kind of an itinerant renaissance faire centered around jousting on motorcycles. Billy is their “king”, and is a little too attached to the idea of knights in shining armor, which is causing a rift between him and his queen/girlfriend, Linet.

Meanwhile, there’s Alan, one of Billy’s right hand men, and the three of them complete a kind of quasi-Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle.

Then there’s Morgan, who is sort of supposed to be Mordred, I guess? He plays a heel in Billy’s troupe, but he’s really not a bad guy. He is ambitious, however, to unseat Billy and be crowned the next king.

That ambition leads him to ultimately break with the group and form his own jousting team under the control of a glitzy Hollywood-type promoter.

Which leads to this amazing photoshoot, and ultimately helping Morgan realize this is NOT the dream he was hoping to realize.

A surprisingly diverse cast rounds out the immediate cast, all with names/personalities modeled on various Arthurian knights and Robin Hood characters.

Performance artist Brother Blue is the troupe’s doctor and spiritual guide, appropriately named Merlin.

 

Honestly, this entire concept is no more ridiculous than any given SCA event.

There’s a feud with the local sheriff’s department who show up to harass the group and beat them up, and a local neo-nazi motorcycle gang who also drop in from time to time to cause chaos. And the appearance of a mysterious Native American motorcycle jouster who silently seems to fulfill some kind of prophecy in Billy’s delusional mind, leading him to accept his fate.

The plot is a little too ambitious for the actual content, but somehow it all more or less works. While the runtime is a tad excessive at 146 minutes, at least it held my attention through most of it (even if I was cringing a good portion of the time).

This was the era of carpet armor and Freon canister helms in the SCA, so I have really no room to judge here.

I would like to pause for a moment and mention that, by complete coincidence, both Knightriders and Excalibur opened on the same day. Had I not known this, I would have thought Knightriders was completely riffing on Excalibur, particularly since the opening scenes are so eerily similar. Zeitgeisty!

Also worth noting, this film didn’t get totally panned by critics! While it doesn’t hold up particularly well 40 years later, it’s probably safe to say that expectations were somewhat lower then. I personally think it could have knocked about 30 minutes off the run time and been a much tighter viewing experience, which is apparently what happened in non-U.S. releases of the film.

Reviews generally praised Ed Harris’ performance, as well as Romero’s direction. Good for them.

 

Have you seen Knightriders? What did you think?

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

18 Responses

  1. Kate Dominguez

    I’m a LARPer (fantasy medieval); I can’t judge other people for their potentially ridiculous hobbies. 😅

    Reply
    • India Edghill

      Ah, Bad Medievaloid Films! I love them! My quest is for a long-ago movie that enchanted my history-buff father: it contained a scene in which a messenger dashes in and cries out “Sire, sire, the Hundred Year’s War has just broken out!”

      Does this ring bells in anyone’s memory?

      Reply
  2. Saraquill

    I’m amused at the codpiece photo, as well as the package in the photo with the purple flags.

    They make me make me curious. How many movies and TV shows set out to visually please those attracted to men? How have approaches changed between say, Knightriders and now?

    Reply
  3. Michael McQuown

    I thought it was, well, an — interesting — idea. Be glad it was Romero’s zombie movie that started a trend. A bad one, but… I could buy it all but the ending, which seemed completely arbitrary. Interestingly enough, the whole Arthurian legend played out here when one king’s squire ended up with the king’s wife.

    Reply
  4. princessflyinghedgehog

    This sounds totally banana crackers and therefore I NEED to watch it now!

    Reply
  5. opusanglicanum

    honestly, I thought that I’d imagined that film, that and the series of books about women who had sex with thier horses in order to produce offspring

    Reply
    • India Edghill

      OMFG that series! I read ONE of them and, as someone who owned a couple of horses back then, wasn’t sure whether to laugh or hurl….

      Reply
  6. Alissa

    Did you find this streaming somewhere? Or resort to good, old fashioned DVDs?

    Reply
  7. Kathleen Norvell

    I was at the original SCA event that “inspired” this movie. George Romero was there too, since it was near his bailiwick, Pittsburgh. It was a crown tournament and one of the finalists cheated and was thrown out. That made him mad enough to start his own medieval group. The actor playing “Morgan” looks remarkedly like the fighter who was tossed.

    Reply
  8. ktkittentoes

    The codpiece photo should not be viewed when you’re eating peanut butter pretzels.

    Reply
  9. ThoraSTooth

    This film is on my short list of “movies you’ll never understand the SCA without seeing.”

    “For the Crown! The Crown lives forever!”

    Reply
  10. Jonfeld

    Designed by the husband and wife team of Barbara and Cletus Anderson.

    Reply
  11. Al Don

    I had avoided watching this movie because… well because. But I guess I must watch it. Pray for me.

    Reply
  12. SarahV

    For the longest time, I thought had hallucinated this movie, or at least conjured up a few tasteful nude scenes of a young, gorgeous Ed Harris but eventually I came across it in a video rental store (remember those) and have been in love with this utterly bonkers movie every since.

    There is a female motorcyclist knight character who is a great fun.

    Reply
  13. Lily Lotus Rose

    Oh. My. God. I have NEVER heard of this movie before now. I MUST see it!!!!

    Reply

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