Sunday, 6 February 2011

Knightriders (1981)

... an epically weird retelling of the Camelot legend, complete with Hell’s Angels, police brutality, Madison Avenue marketing men, sexual disorientation and lashings of revved up carnage – with a few leather nuns thrown in for good measure....

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Knightriders (1981, George A. Romero)

Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Tom Savini, Amy Ingersoll, Brother Blue, Martin Ferrero, Warner Shook, Stephen King.

Box Notables:
Nary a fingerprint, squire.

Tagline: ‘Camelot is a State of Mind.’

Trailers: Steamy Widows, The Biathlon Killers, Todd Times Two

Cherrypick: “Yet more suckerheaded driftwood Americans who can’t tell the difference between me and Charles Manson!”

Amid the fragile greens and yellows of an idyllic forest glade at dawn wakes a lithe, naked male form of regal bearing. Instinctively he glances hither and yon, as if in somehow tune with the rhythms of the waking wood. Now a lady, pale and beautiful as the early morning mist stirs beside him. They kiss tenderly. This noble fellow then descends to the nearby lake in which he stands balls-deep, self-flagellating with a stripped birch as his beloved looks on. Now they dress, she in fine silks and he in battered leather armour that still bears the unmistakable traces of a lordly heritage. Finally, the sweet damsel hands her handsome knight a white plumed helmet and, after placing it atop his princely brow, he and his princess climb into the saddle of his trusty steed – a custom painted Suzuki RM 125x Motocross bike – and burn some righteous rubber into Bakersfield, California…
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So begins this epically weird retelling of the Camelot legend, complete with Hell’s Angels, police brutality, Madison Avenue marketing men, sexual disorientation and lashings of revved up carnage – with a few leather nuns thrown in for good measure.

Ed Harris is the King Arthur figure in a travelling band of motorbike-riding jousters, strolling players, general fuck-ups and acid-casualty fantasists that put on mediaeval fairs of overblown chivalry and motorised mutilation for the credulous country-fried rubes of entertainment-starved hayseed towns across the Southern states.

With the straight-arrow demeanour and zero-tolerance temperament of a career fighter pilot-type, on the surface it’s difficult to fathom how such a starched shirt as Harris came to be bumming around with this bunch of misguided thespians and lawless petrolheads, but perhaps his iron fist in an iron glove style of leadership is just what they need. Ed may talk endlessly about living by a vague and largely undisclosed code of valour and shun all the trappings of capitalism, but he’s not averse to being waited on handed foot by the serfs of his counterfeit kingdom and riding a specially imported top of the range Japanese motorcycle. But any such an arrangement as this is, of course, a two way street, and in this case it is one on which the carnival’s hippy underclass are quite happy to consent to the illusion of freedom whilst tacitly accepting the role of submissive co-dependent in a strictly hierarchical society. Sure, they may shake their fists or paint the odd placard every now and then, but you know deep down they love it!

We would hope that by now you are beginning to grasp how much more complex this two and a half hour meditation on integrity vs. commerce is than the video box might have you believe.
'So, up to anything this weekend..?'
And commerce is certainly the elephant in the room. When a cast of hundreds are regularly playing to crowds of less than half a dozen there are always going to be problems in balancing the books. So, when unctuous promoter Joe Bontempi of Silver Bullet Enterprises (perfectly sketched by Martin Ferrero, the weedy lawyer from Jurassic Park) offers the films Lancelot (flowing blond locks) and Morgan (jet black hair, pointy beard) characters a big-money shot at their own 'American Gladiators' type show on the teevee, the Round Table buckles like a dollar Frisbee. This outright betrayal Camelot’s tenets of brotherhood and self-satisfied moral rectitude sets Harris to ranting and raving like a sideshow puritan and it’s only the pharmaceutical ministrations of his scat-singing Merlin (played by Harvard folk historian Brother Blue in his only film role - factoid!) that keeps him from becoming entirely unglued.

But life beyond Arthur’s kingdom proves unfulfilling for his knights-errant. Lancelot cannot bear the complacency of the log-cabin liberal friends he chooses to stay with and Morgan finds the glitz, glamour and studded posing pouches of primetime television more trouble than they’re worth. Both subsequently return - like big, soppy prodigal sons - to the bosom of Camelot. And this might have been a good place to wrap things up because it is just after the boys return to the fold that the film takes a more than slightly sinister turn.
Arise, you chob!
Any thought of the company continuing to perform for audiences is now given over to an unforgiving regimen of weapons training and hard-line reprogramming. Every member of the troupe is knighted in a ritualistic lakeside ceremony and what had appeared at the outset to be nothing more than a bunch of agreeably feather-brained recreationists has transmuted into a retrogressive private militia dedicated to the sole aim of returning America to some wholly-imagined ersatz Arthurian utopia.

It's a truly strange film that openly trades in wanton destruction and bone-chilling violence but still finds time in its loose, meandering script for lengthy and disarmingly frank campfire discussions about why the entertainment profession should attract so many homosexual members and for digressive, impressionistic road-trips through the Sonora desert on which the plot takes very much a back seat to scenery and sitar music. And through it all, Knightriders’ gore-streaked melancholy and misty-eyed lunacy recalls nothing more than the wonderful tagline used to advertised that other elegiac outlaw classic, The Wild Bunch, which charted the twilight days of ‘Nine men who came too late, and stayed too long’.

Two and a half hours? Yep, that’s plenty long enough.

Originally published in Little White Lies #28

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