The classics theme for August was “hog wild” and featured a lot of motorcycle movies made between those most awesome of years 1965-1975. I didn’t want to see Easy Rider, as is often the case with movies of this era, but I resisted the sense of obligation to see it. Easy Rider is generally considered the best of the genre, and even it’s not exactly great by all accounts. It’s just very of its time. Besides the time period, motorcycle movies tend to be about the culture, man—the counter-culture, which, tbh (as the kids say these days) does not bear close scrutiny. Basically, these tend to be movies about dissolute criminals whose do a lot of drugs, commit a lot of crimes, and basically leech off society. (The “Mystery Science Theater 3000” riffing subject Sidehackers, e.g., while laughably bad, is not unrepresentative of the genre, in my experience.)
I was adamant, however, that I wanted to see this film, however, which was George Romero’s entry into the genre—long past its prime, and with a medieval theme. If I recall correctly, Romero wanted to make a medieval fantasy flick but, let’s face it, horses are expensive and a pain-in-the-ass. So he put it in modern times and put everyone on motorcycles instead.
Maybe that’s wrong, but that’s what I was told. A long time ago. By somebody. Probably.
Anyway, I was a little bit nervous because I had seen it a long time ago on TV and been impressed, but it’s—well, it’s just a long shot, you know? George Romero made a lot of movies, and he did not always hit it out of the park. After the first two zombie movies, for example, his undead output was less than inspiring. When he missed, the movies could get dull. And this is a kind of kooky concept.
Which, actually, is why it works. The idea is that Ed Harris, in his first feature film, if I’m not mistaken, runs a kind of travelling sideshow—a Renaissance Fair, but with motorcycles. And the main draw is people riding around on these motorcycles jousting and sometimes engaging in more direct hand-to-hand combat, though with stage weapons or armor. But the underlying current here (as is common in the biker films) is the culture that coalesces around the fair. The troupe acts as a sort of extended family, with each person performing certain roles and getting the benefits of the commune. As happened in real life, these communes don’t hold up well under the stresses of ordinary life.
In this case, the big threat comes in the form of success: A slick and sleazy booking agent and an equally slick and sleazy…I dunno…producer(?) gal seduce the most contentious of knights (Morgan, played by Tom Savini) away in a bid to create a more marketable, national product. Their special, souped-up armor looks exactly like KISS, I realized watching it this time, which was kind of hilarious.
Anyway, Billy (Ed Harris) is “fighting the dragon” and insisting people live by The Code, both of which are sort of inchoate objections about, I dunno, capitalism, maybe? Modern consumerism? The System, man? It doesn’t really matter much because Harris is so damn good, and there is a principal there, even if never clearly defined. They all agree on it, they all live by it, except when they don’t, which is when things go to hell.
The other reason this movie works is that it’s fun, and it never loses sight of that. (Though, apparently, the original cut was seventeen hours long! And there’s a limit to how much fun that could’ve been.) The medieval patina allows Romero to borrow from historical (and largely dubiously followed and understood) codes while the modernization keeps the movie from disappearing up its own ass—which, by the way is what would’ve happened had the film been made in Hollywood instead of Pittsburgh. While the show uses medieval music (except in one scene where everything is falling apart), the members of the community are free to break into more contemporary and bluesy sounds. A few attempts at medieval-sounding speech are quickly dismissed.
And perhaps the underlying reason for the movie’s success is that it was Romero’s own struggle to do what he wanted instead of what Hollywood wanted. I mean, you can look at the cast and crew for this on IMDB, and you’ll see plenty of people whose only credit is this film, or this film and other Romero films. Romero liked his home base and liked to do what he wanted to, and this was a rare instance where he actually got to. It probably didn’t make much, if any money, except maybe on videotape. (I can find no box office info for this online.)
We were privileged to have the stunt coordinator (Gary Davis) and one of the stuntmen (Scptt Wilder, I think) with us—Ed Harris was prevented by the rain from showing up, alas—and they gave us a lot of cool stories about the making of the film. Actually, it might have been good that Harris didn’t show, just because he doubtless would’ve dominated the Q&A and after talk, and we’ll doubtless have lots more chances to hear from him than we would from these guys. Also: stunt guys are the best. (Also delightful: Gary Davis’ daughter Jennifer Elizabeth was a baby when the film came out, and she’s actually involved in one of the stunts. She was at the showing as well, and she has the best baby picture ever of being held by a mime after her mother runs off.)
We have noticed (the kids and I) that some of these old films with their stunts seem a whole lot more impressive than the modern CGIed stuff (though that too involves a lot of stunts, quite often!). I mean, with a classic stunt, what you see is pretty much what happened, clever edits aside. And this movie—a low budget flick to be sure—is chock full of some great motorcycle stunts. Apparently, if the stunt guys had a cool idea, they’d run it by George and he’d set up the script and story so that the stunt made sense.
Which goes back to what I was saying about the film never losing sight of being entertaining. However personal a statement it may have been, it was definitely made for an audience. And I was pleased and a little surprised to find that both the kids really enjoyed all two hours and twenty minutes of it, and really enjoyed talking to the stunt folk. (Though the talking to the stunt folk part wasn’t that surprising: These are not shy people, The Flower and The Boy.)
It’s wild, sure, but it’s bold enough to pull it off. And it’s a whole lot less gory than the zombie flicks, though it’s often not rated as highly as those. And, in fairness, it isn’t the genre masterpiece that both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are. But it is a unique entry in the canon, and that’s worth something.