Much like Rollerball, George Romero’s Knightriders is one of those movies that is deceptive. It looks like a mindless action film, because there are guys jousting on motorcycles. But the violence is just a device; the film is actually packed with philosophy. And when it hit HBO and Cinemax back when I was 15, it was an enormous influence on me. To this date I count it among my favorite films of all time, primarily because it makes you think.
The plot centers on a traveling show called “Fight or Yield”, which features knights who joust against one another in the hinterlands of Ohio and western Pennsylvania. It is run by Billy, “Sir William the King” (played by Ed Harris), who has set up this Arthurian fantasy, and who has placed himself in danger repeatedly by challenging Morgan, the Black Knight (played by Tom Savini), who is the best jouster in the troupe, but who lacks the real moral authority to lead them. “I was never into all this king Arthur crap,” he says at one point. “I’m just in it for the bikes.” Merlin is his conscience, played by the late Brother Blue (a particularly wonderful performer, not only in this role but also on the streets of Cambridge as a story-teller).
And that, in my estimation, is the whole point of the film. The world that Billy has created is a bubble in reality, where the ideals of Tennyson’s vision of Arthur’s Round Table is fully realized. Reality is continually impinging on that dream, and eroding it, both from within (Morgan’s attitude towards the ideals that underlie the whole group) and from without (when Sir Allen, the second-best jouster in the group, brings in a townie, Julie, played by Babylon 5 actress Patricia Tallman; also when Tuck, a faux monk, brings in a photographer as his girlfriend).
The conflict comes when Morgan agrees to go off with a number of the other jousters to establish another group, called “Knightriders”, at the urging of a sleazy entertainment promoter played by future Jurassic Park actor Martin Ferrero. The group flies apart as its inner stresses are released, and Morgan and his people go off to experience the decadence of Washington D.C., while Billy’s group sits and stews, and Allen and a few others go off on their own to sort things out.
Eventually, both Allen and Morgan realize what Fight or Yield was really all about. Not the jousting, not selling trinkets or corn, but the ideals of the Round Table. They agree to fight for control of the original group, as long as Billy agrees to abide by the outcome and will “sit on his ass” so he won’t get hurt again. Morgan wins, and Billy leaves, ultimately to take his own humiliating vengeance on a corrupt cop who had abused his authority at the expense of Billy and one of his men, and give a child a very special gift. Billy ends up dying in the throws of a hallucination where he seems himself riding on a white charger, mowed down by a truck as he is actually riding his motorcycle.
If this movie can be summed up in a single phrase, it is “the struggle between the world and our personal ideals”. As Billy says, “I’m not trying to be a hero! I’m fighting the Dragon!”, with the Dragon being the world. Eventually, those who do not recognize the struggle are eventually brought around, and those who cannot accept the struggle are rejected.
It’s a powerful statement about the potential for one individual to impress his own vision of reality upon the world, and what happens when that vision and the world collide. As with many of these films in my Sunday Matinee collection, it was a heady collection of ideas in my formative years, and one whose influence I can positively identify in some projects I’ve undertaken in later years. If you are unfamiliar with this film, I heartily recommend it. Make no mistake; there’s action, but it goes hand in hand with the message.