Homo Ludens and the Society of the Chivalric Spectacle in George A. Romero’s Knightriders

William Christopher Brown


In film studies and pop culture studies, George A. Romero is a highly respected filmmaker because of his innovative series of independent films, particularly his first film Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Though his reputation rests primarily on his repeated forays into the zombie genre, Romero notes that his non-zombie films, Martin (1978) and Knightriders (1981), are “the dearest to [his] heart” (“DVD Commentary” to Knightriders).  Despite Romero’s affection for these films, Knightriders unequivocally counts as a failure in Romero’s canon.  The director notes in an interview with Dan Yakir that the film was “meant to be a commercial picture” (45), yet it received a critical drubbing upon its release and performed poorly at the box office.  Writing over twenty years after the film’s release, Kevin Harty notes it “has still not attracted nearly the audience and the critical attention it deserves” (104).  In this article, I offer an explanation for the film’s failure to capture popular and critical approval.  The eponymous Knightriders of Romero’s film comprise a countercultural community who travel the country performing medieval reenactments with a twist: they joust on motorcycles. Romero’s goal is to encourage his audience to aspire to countercultural ideals prevalent in the sixties.   He states that he created the troupe of jousting motorcyclists as a way to express his belief in the need to “slay the dragon of commercialism” through alternative cultural practices (Romero, “DVD Commentary”).  In what follows, I will use Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture and Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle to explain the failure of the film to find an audience and, ultimately, to achieve its purpose.  The problems I identify in the film are a result of Romero’s reliance on Hollywood cinema rather than a critical examination of history and culture. The failure to acknowledge historical context makes it impossible for Romero to fully utilize the productive power of his countercultural ideals.

At first glance, this jousting on motorcycles functions as “play” in the sense that Johan Huizinga uses in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.  For Huizinga, every culture originates in play that “promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means” (13).  The knightriders represent this productive capacity of play to create an alternative social grouping that opposes the way media-saturated capitalism distorts reality.  Billy (Ed Harris), simultaneously a King Arthur figure and a stand-in for the director, serves as the visionary figure into whom Romero places his “longing for a better world, for a higher plane of existence, for people to get together” (Yakir 43).  The primary tension in the film revolves around whether the troupe is a show (as in a performance put on only for money) or reality (as in a countercultural lifestyle with moral and ethical values opposed to capitalist commercialism).  For Romero, Knightriders presents a community at a point of transition as the television entertainment industry lays siege to the knightriders’ ostensibly authentic play and threatens to subsume it into the capitalist realm of profits and dividends.

On the surface, Romero seems to be presenting a picture-perfect example of the productive tendencies of play to create an alternative to an ever-expanding capitalism that pervades modern life; however, his vision of a medievalist countercultural community conveys what Huizinga calls puerilism masquerading as play (205).  Huizinga’s recognition that play always remains open to manipulation for nefarious political purposes occurs at the end of his famous book Homo Ludens.  To unpack the underdeveloped implications of Huizinga’s insights into the puerilistic manipulation of play by totalitarian cultures, I turn to Guy Debord’s Huizinga-influenced criticism of media-saturated capitalism, The Society of the Spectacle.[i]  Grouping this trio together may seem, at first, idiosyncratic, but their respective interests in the productive capacity of play for social change binds them together thematically.  Huizinga, Debord, and Romero share in common a sense that the play-element is missing in modern society; or as Debord puts it, “the never-ending succession of paltry contests—from competitive sports to elections—are utterly incapable of arousing any truly playful feelings” (Society 40).  Each of their respective works protest the ever-encroaching commodification of modern life and share a common concern that “playful feelings” no longer possess use-value but serve only as exchange values.  Both Romero and Debord propose to attack the consumerism that characterizes both of their contemporary moments.  Romero professes his concern with the way in which popular media, such as television and magazines, distorts reality and negates life; however, his failure to theorize or historicize his playful band of knightriders reproduces the very social structures he abhors.  Knightriders attempts to show the power of imagination to influence reality, but the lack of historical knowledge of the Middle Ages subverts his efforts to use the era as an antidote to the capitalist modernity that troubles him.

The Tournament of Scholarship

In the scholarship on Knightriders, film scholars and medievalists diverge in their interpretation of Romero’s success in creating a counterculture that uses play in the form of medievalism as an alternative to “the McDonaldization of America” (Romero qtd. in Hanners and Kloman 74).  Film scholarship on Knightriders eschews interrogation of Romero’s medievalism in favor of accepting the director’s intentions in making the film.  Film scholars who have written on Knightriders fail to critique the film on its own terms, falling back on the intentional fallacy.  Repeatedly, they readily accept Romero’s stated intentions in making Knightriders.  Didactically, Romero aspires to influence the real audience members of the film to “rediscover their conscience” and live a life that transcends the crassness of commercialism and modern media (Yakir 42).  Tony Williams accepts Romero’s vision of the Arthurian Middle Ages without questioning the medievalism that inspires it: “The knightriders all participate in a philosophy they sincerely believe in.  It is designed to promote an idealistic world of a medieval honor missing from contemporary life” (106).  For Romero, the Middle Ages signify a “code of ethics—[i.e.,] chivalry [and] morality”— that directly opposes capitalism and commercialism (Yakir 42).  Compared to commercialized American popular culture, the knightriders represent a “pragmatic idealism” that allows for a “necessary self-respect for continuing existence” through a withdrawal into fantasy (Williams 102).  This chivalric, ethical, and moral Middle Ages as represented by Camelot derives not from a study of medieval history, but the cinema of Romero’s youth.  Romero enthuses, “I’d give my eyeteeth to make an Ivanhoe.  In Knightriders, I’m borrowing from all those Cornel Wilde [and] Robert Taylor movies” (Harty 104).  The utopian aspects of the film derive from cinematic visions of King Arthur that dehistoricize the Middle Ages and undermine the film’s productive capacity to imagine an alternative to the subject of its critique, modern capitalism.

Though Romero receives support from film scholars, the first reviewers of Knightriders criticized the director’s playful alternative to capitalism because it fails at the level of ideological critique through its romanticized view of the Middle Ages derived from Hollywood.  Two reviewers, in particular, open the critical conversation on the director’s use of the Middle Ages as the vehicle for reimagining countercultural communities, but they lack the review-space to develop their criticisms.  Ed Sikov objects to Romero’s naïve romanticization of the Middle Ages’ hierarchical structure.  Unlike the overly-admiring film scholarship on Romero, Sikov faults Romero for failing to interrogate the sustainability of a countercultural group led by a monarch: “The Knightriders cult is governed strictly by the rights of kings and is an autocracy based on wish-fulfillment and the ridiculous subjugation of an entire group to a battle’s victor” (33).  Martin Sutton’s review also worries that transposing Arthuriana into the contemporary United States negates the utopian ideals that the film outlines: “The world it embodies is helplessly patriarchal, with a strongly defined hierarchical structure” (38).

These movie reviewers foreshadow the criticism of the medievalist scholar, Susan Aronstein, who further confirms the problematic nature of Romero’s vision of countercultural dissent.  Aronstein concurs that the Arthurian utopia of Knightriders fails because it relies on “a retreat to a Camelot based on hierarchy and steeped in martial violence” (Aronstein 143).  Romero’s failure to theorize or historicize his ostensibly medievalist critique of modernity results in a re-creation of the very economic exploitative terms that he abhors.  Film scholars without the scholarly background on the Middle Ages perpetuate Romero’s errors of interpretation.  As Aronstein notes, Romero’s medievalism centers on his cheerful acceptance of the stereotype of the Middle Ages as a time of “harmony, community, connection to nature, [and] joyful labor,” in other words, unity (135).  This medievalism, based on a false unity, causes the director and his admirers to overlook the implications of Romero’s call for a return to the ideals of the countercultural sixties through stereotypical medievalism.  The hierarchy and violence imply an atmosphere of intimidation and conformity rather than the freedom that Romero purports to show and that film scholars readily accept.

Turning to the play-influenced Society of the Spectacle helps to reveal Romero’s inability to recognize that his countercultural utopia functions as little more than a totalitarian cult.  This contradiction arises because Romero tries to pit what Debord calls the diffuse spectacle of capitalist wage-earning societies against the concentrated spectacle of totalitarian regimes.  Debord emphasizes, “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image” (Society 24), but he clarifies that “[t]he spectacle is not a collection of images” (12).  Instead, he uses the term “spectacle” to convey that “social relationship[s] between people … [are] mediated by images” (12).  The pervasiveness of mass communications, such as television and magazines, results in the diminishment of “direct experience and the determination of events by individuals themselves” as they take on the habits of “passive contemplation of images (which have … been chosen by other people)” (Jappe 6).  The spectacle in its predominant guise as mass communication “appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification” (Debord, Society 12).  Ironically, the spectacle promotes the opposite: separation and a lack of unity.[ii]  All of spectacular capitalist society attends to its influence and is susceptible to the “illusion and false consciousness” that it promotes (12).  Relevant to Romero’s criticism of capitalism, Debord elaborates, “the modern spectacle [is …] the autocratic reign of the market economy which [has] acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty and the totality of new techniques of government which accompany[y] this reign” (Debord, Comments 2).

Throughout Knightriders, the social structure of the countercultural group causes explicit and implicit problems for its fictional members as well as its director, who uses the group to promulgate his ideas on alternative social orders.  As the movie reviewers and Aronstein observe, the utopian ideals that the film professes and representation clash in unresolvable ways.  The knightriders desire fantasy and play to the point that they participate in a “utopia” that places them all in subservient positions to King Billy.  The film explains the totalitarian social structure in the Council Meeting scene.  King Billy rules with his queen, Linet (Amy Ingersoll), followed by the motorcycle-riding knights.  The mechanics fall below the knights, while the merchants loosely fulfill the role of “serfs,” though the terminology seems imprecise—the film uses the term “serfs” uncritically to connote the lowest, most contemptuous members of their society.  Merlin (Brother Blue) holds a unique place in the social structure as the medic and sage adviser to King Billy.  With its hierarchical, totalitarian social structure, Romero’s chivalric spectacle recreates a community saturated in medieval imagery devoid of any socially transformative potential for reimagining a non-exploitative counterculture.

Playing with the Middle Ages

Homo Ludens is not specifically a work about the Middle Ages in the same way as The Autumn of the Middle Ages, but Huizinga states that the origins of his theory of the play-element in culture lay in his research for Autumn: “It was in trying to describe the purpose of all this,” i.e., “the sumptuous apparatus of codes of honor, courtly demeanor, heraldry, chivalric orders and tournaments,” “in my earlier book that the intimate connection between culture and play first dawned on me” (104).  Huizinga derives the term “Homo Ludens” from “Homo Faber: Man the Maker” (ix) and distinguishes play from work because the former “transcends” the materialism of life and “imparts meaning to the action” (1).  Play produces culture because it holds formal characteristics that coalesce as players freely step outside of “‘ordinary’ life” and absorb themselves “utterly” in an activity (13).  Homo Ludens rejects materialism to the point where the book excludes “material interest” and profit from play (13).  Play changes culture because of the pleasure it gives (9-10).  Its affinity with order is akin to the appeal of aesthetics in that play “create[s] orderly form” and suffuses these pleasurable activities with the “noble” qualities of “rhythm and harmony” (10).  Its perpetuation into tradition “creates order” and brings a sense of control to an uncontrollable, “imperfect world” (10).  The rules of play bring “into the confusion of life [. . .] a temporary, limited perfection” (10).

In many respects, Knightriders qualifies as a representation of Huizinga’s definition of play.  King Billy and his subjects spend their time travelling the country, jousting (playing) on motorcycles.  They live in an alternative social order created through and sustained by play.  The medieval “glory and honor” that Romero admires comes across as a “certain form of ‘magic,’ or spiritual idealism” for the knightriders (Williams 102).  Romero emphasizes this magical, playful element within the film by invoking T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.  Pippin (Warren Shook), the announcer for the knightriders’ tournaments, describes the playful ideals of the troupe for Romero:

Welcome to the games in support of Sir William the King.  When T. H. White wrote the magical tales of Arthur down, he called it The Once and Future King.  Once, honor and nobility; in the future, may it also reign.  In those magical days, when honor was the true king, a good knight’s fighting skill was the symbol of that honor.  In times of peace, the knights would ride in tournaments to keep their skills sharp and practice the chivalries of battle.

Arthuriana provides Romero a striking series of visual images for his film.  It serves as a metaphor for the fight between the harsh reality of earning minimum wage under capitalism and the fantastic, “more healthy past world of glory and honor” of the Middle Ages (Williams 102).  The chivalric play of the knightriders allows them to imagine their lives outside of the ordinary boundaries that constrain their audience.  The medieval aesthetic of jousting gives the knightriders a sense of order and beauty to their lives that Pippin constructs as ennobling because of its relation to Camelot.

The stereotype of a romanticized, orderly Middle Ages provides Romero with a didactic metaphor for countercultural unity against modern capitalism.  Billy (and, by extension, Romero) longs for a code of ethics and morality that is not for sale.  Billy ventriloquizes Romero’s call for people to “fight for [their] ideals. … if you die, your ideals don’t die. The Code that we’re living by is the Truth.  Truth is our Code.”  The Truth by which he lives directly opposes the capitalist necessity for constant economic expansion and growth.  Romero’s voice in the film, King Billy, makes his stand against capitalism explicit: “You can keep the money you make off of this sick world [. . .].  I don’t want any part of it.  Anyone who wants to live more for themselves doesn’t belong with us” (my emphasis).  I have underscored “belong with us” to emphasize Romero’s focus on the creation of unity within marginalized countercultural groups.  Ostensibly, Romero, through Billy, takes a stand against the corrosive commercialization of every activity through the corrupting influences of money and celebrity.  Nevertheless, their countercultural group depends on an economy of trade in beads, trinkets, and snacks in order to survive.  The fantasy that the jousters and audience enjoy exists only because of a monetarily exploitative system.  The king and the knights revel in their fantasies of Camelot only because “the merchants are the serfs” and give up their profits for the good of the group (Romero).

Film scholarship on Knightriders follows the director’s intent without fully interrogating the implications of Romero’s hierarchical medievalism.  Kevin J. Harty lauds Knightriders as a “successful, cinematic counterpart to [Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court] that seeks to present a genuinely American reworking of the Arthuriad” (104).  For Harty, Knightriders represents a successful attempt to transpose a utopian Middle Ages onto “the American dream” of inclusiveness (106).  He accepts Romero’s conceit that “the Arthurian legend and the American Dream are compatible” without interrogating the hierarchical violence that characterizes the film (106).  Williams also follows Romero’s guiding hand in his interpretation of the film.  Williams sympathizes with Romero’s meditation on the day-to-day difficulties of sustaining a utopian ideal in the contemporary capitalist United States.  He insists, along with Romero, that the counterculture has not failed, but he overlooks the problematic medievalism that undergirds the countercultural knightriders.  Williams agrees with Romero that the film “reveals the odds they [the knightriders] face in taking up challenges involved” in creating and maintaining a countercultural group (100).  Missing from these scholars’ sympathetic readings of Knightriders is a skeptical interrogation of the contradictions that arise in Romero’s picture of hierarchical kingship in modern-day America.  As I will show in the next section, Romero’s ideological critique of capitalism fails because he cannot distinguish between play and its “puerilistic” appropriation, which Huizinga describes in Homo Ludens.

“Fighting”: The Manipulation of Play

Play’s ability to create feelings of order, harmony, and aesthetics in groups of people runs the risk of being abused.  For Huizinga, who published Homo Ludens in 1938, two years after the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, play must be distinguished from its politically useful double, puerilism.  Puerilism includes: “gregariousness, … trivial recreation and crude sensationalism, the delight in mass-meetings, mass demonstrations, [and] parades” (205).  Puerilism confused with play is a threat because it mimics the salient features of the club: The club is a very ancient institution, but it is a disaster when whole nations turn into clubs, for these, besides promoting the precious qualities of friendship and loyalty, are also hotbeds of sectarianism, intolerance, suspicion, superciliousness and are quick to defend any illusion that flatters self-love or group-consciousness. (205)

Huizinga recognizes a real danger in activities that seem like play but are not: “certain play-forms may be used consciously or unconsciously to cover up some social or political design” (205).  In particular, Huizinga fears that commercial sports and the Olympics subvert the positive, productive elements of play: “sport and athletics show us play stiffening into seriousness but still being felt as play” (199).  To illustrate the threat of puerilism to the play-element of culture, he invokes a sly reference to Nazi Germany’s utilization of play as memorialized by Leni Reifenstahl in Olympiad: “The spectacle of a society rapidly goose-stepping into helotry is, for some, the dawn of the millennium.  We believe them to be in error” (206).  In mass organized spectacles, such as the Olympics or football, the sporting event may seem like play, but the play-element is “raised to such a pitch of technical organization and scientific thoroughness that the real play-spirit is threatened with extinction” (199).  Huizinga worries about puerilism masquerading as play because of its potential for mass violence: “We have seen great nations losing every shred of honor, all sense of humor, the very idea of decency and fair play” (205).  The superficial play-element in Knightriders mirrors Huizinga’s recognition of the affinity between sport and war.  The tension in the film revolves around the constant threat that the community will dissolve as the idealized play-element recedes to the pressure of economic reality.

Puerilism disguised as play first enters the film in the form of Morgan’s mace.  Morgan (Tom Savini) and Alan (Gary Lahti) are initially presented as two different potential directions that the knightriders can take as Billy’s leadership deteriorates.  Morgan and his mace represent a “puerile” force in the tournaments even as Alan argues for the necessity of the strict rules of play.  The mace that Morgan wields threatens to intrude reality into the play of motorized jousts.  Huizinga notes the importance of rules in play for creating order and stability: “The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt. [. . .]  Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses.  The game is over” (11).  The mace is the first represented crisis of Billy’s leadership and it reflects the problem of whether the knightriders are real or artifice.  Morgan’s willingness to bring in real violence via the mace reflects a win-at-all-costs mentality.  He tells the others, “I was never into this King Arthur crap—just the fights!”  Morgan’s and Alan’s anxieties about reality versus imagination call attention to the diverse needs that the chivalric spectacle purports to meet for its members.  The mace threatens the community because it pushes the boundaries of the agreed-upon rules.  Billy, as king, allows the innovation because he blurs his vision of community as a group of people playing together to create a culture with his martial ideal of “slaying the dragon of commercialism.”

More sensitive to the appearance of the mace on pragmatic and idealist levels, Alan recognizes that the mace threatens the continued existence of their countercultural group.  Pragmatically, Alan questions Morgan’s innovation: “Your armor will take a bazooka shell. [. . .]  Don’t forget [that] some of us are wearing tin foil,” to which Morgan responds, “That’s your problem.  My problem is to knock you out of that saddle.”  Morgan takes seriously the knightriders’ motto, “Fight or Yield,” at the expense of the play-element’s emphasis on the rules that bind and define them.  Alan reiterates his concern when he explains to the young groupie Julie (Patricia Tallman), “It’s never too bad when it’s just a show.”  This innovation threatens to destroy play because it literally intrudes the threat of death.  He voices his complaints about the mace to King Billy after Morgan wounds the king:

We’re all in this because of the lifestyle.  We got our own place and you did that.  You set that up.  You know what it’s about.  It’s about having things we can count on.  And one of the things we count on, man, is you.  Now you’ve been messing up lately and you keep putting it on the rest of us.  The whole thing is going to blow up.  And nobody needs that kind of shit, man.  That’s why we’re here.

In his conversation with Billy, Alan shifts his attention from the threat of bodily harm to the potential demise of their countercultural group.  Alan’s choice of words, “lifestyle,” evokes Huizinga’s criteria of exclusivity and even secrecy in play: “Even in early childhood the charm of play is enhanced by making a ‘secret’ out of it.  This is for us, not for the ‘others.’  What the ‘others’ do ‘outside’ is no concern of ours at the moment.  Inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count.  We are different and do things differently” (Huizinga 12).  Idealistically, Alan recognizes that the mace changes the rules of play, which redefines the community.  Alan’s emphasis on the importance of maintaining a community of like-minded people contrasts with the competitive spirit of jousting that Morgan constructs.

Winning with that cudgel of reality, the mace, adds an effect of puerilism that Alan recognizes as just as damaging to the future existence of the troupe as the commercialism that frightens Billy.  In his emotional way, Alan recognizes the tenuous thread of tension that Huizinga identifies as vital to the success of play and anticipates what happens when those threads fray to the point of breaking.  The productive capacity of play to create culture is centered upon the positive tension players feel as they follow the rules of the game (11).  For Huizinga, the tension of struggle within the accepted boundaries of play imparts an ethical value to the activity that defines its participants (11).   Play allows the player to test his or her “prowess, … courage, tenacity, resources, and … spiritual powers,” which Huizinga explicitly associates with “fairness” (11).  The mace reduces play to puerilism because the craftsmanship that goes into the production of the troupe’s weapons shifts from the well-being of the entire troupe to the competitive edge of a particular member.  Morgan no longer stands out because of his prowess within previously defined rules; instead, he excels because of his technological innovation (199-200).  Although Billy exults in Morgan’s win over him, even Morgan recognizes that he has gone over the line of play into real violence: “I guess the mace is too heavy. [. . .]  What’d you do out there?  It’s like you wanted me to smash you?  I mean, if you want to prove the mace is too heavy, you don’t have to die to do it.”  Billy’s failure to control the real violence that the mace introduces into the play of jousting reflects not only his crisis over the crudity of the audience and the sullying of art with commerce, but also a profound misunderstanding of the way play can become a productive, progressive reality.

“Yielding”: Chivalric Spectacle as Concentrated Spectacle

Romero’s film Knightriders and Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle share in common the avowed purpose of attacking the consumerism and media-saturated capitalism that characterize both of their contemporary moments.  They both rail against the alienation caused by commodity-centered capitalism and call for the creation of a sense of authentic unity among people.  The two diverge in their respective senses of who is to be united as well as the methods for unification.  For Debord, it is the creation of revolutionary workers’ councils; for Romero, it is the re-creation of 1960s style countercultures.  Harty’s and Williams’s interpretations of democratic utopian ideals within Knightriders meet an obstacle in a scene that Sikov refers to as the “subjugation of an entire group to” an autocratic king (33).  Queen Linet tries to present the knightriders’ troupe as a commune based on equality, but the equality is limited to the actual motorcycle (knight)riders and excludes the mechanics and merchants/serfs.  The knights ostensibly “can make decisions,” but only “the king makes the final decision.”  Rather than exemplify utopia, the knightriders function as a top-down organization based on “specialization,” “hierarchy,” and “separation” (Debord, Society 87).

The inability of Romero or his admirers to recognize the dystopian elements of Knightriders lies in the ironic unity of purpose that characterizes both the diffuse and concentrated spectacles.  Romero’s chivalric spectacle fails as a critique because it, to use Debord’s terminology, tries to pit a concentrated spectacle against the diffuse spectacle.  Debord distinguishes the two types of spectacles as variations on the same theme of exploitation.  He associates concentrated spectacles with totalitarian regimes in that the “ideology condense[s] around a dictatorial personality”; diffuse spectacles, which he associates with openly capitalist markets, “driv[e] wage-earners to apply their freedom of choice to the vast range of new commodities now on offer” (Debord, Comments 8).  The spectacular aspects of totalitarian regimes represent little more than a variant of capitalist spectacles (Society 68).  Romero and his admirers regularly present Knightriders as opposed to the diffuse spectacle, but the representation of a utopia built around hierarchical kingship more closely approximates the condensed spectacle associated with totalitarian regimes.  Like Marx and his partisans before him, Debord reiterates that class divisions are the basis “on which the real unity of the capitalist mode of production is based” (46).  The paradox of the spectacle lies in the fact that the spectacle “unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness” (22).  A concentrated spectacle, like Knightriders, functions as a top-down form of government that specializes in “total social management” (68).  The confrontation between the king and knights against the lower social orders of the mechanics and merchants (or serfs) calls attention to the recreation of inequality based on economic exploitation.  The totalitarian cult of personality in Knightriders resonates with Debord’s critique.  The hierarchy of royalty, knightriders, mechanics, and merchants/serfs recreates the very problems of separation that the film’s utopian vision wants to unite.

Rather than conceptualize a community born out of the alternative structures conceived during play, the film inadvertently recreates a filmmaker’s control of the imaginary world that he and his crew create.  Romero’s inability to build into the social structure of the knightriders the ability to control King Billy originates in his identification of the devotees of chivalric medievalism with his own Pennsylvanian troupe of independent filmmakers (Asahina 17-18).  Romero, himself, has confessed to this intense identification with his creations, King Billy and the knightriders.  In the DVD commentary to the film, Romero and his actors speak very lovingly of their time making the film.  Romero declares with pride, “We felt we were this troupe, fighting against adversity” to which one of the actors agrees, “Yes, it shows.  The family atmosphere really comes through.”  Romero’s convincing case that his independent film crew works like a countercultural group appeals to film scholars on the director.  Williams recognizes an accord between Romero’s thematic concerns of creating an alternative community in Knightriders and Romero’s status as an independent filmmaker.  The film “embod[ies] the type of attitude seen in Romero’s own ideas of a filmmaking community who form an alliance, break apart, and then recombine to continue practicing the very idea that brought them together in the first place” (Williams 113).  This “guerilla filmmak[ing],” as Williams alludes to it, represents Romero’s own fights, as an independent filmmaker, against the vulgar consumerism of Hollywood (109).  As Williams sees it, Romero’s preeminent purpose in making Knightriders is to show the difficulties of “following an alternative lifestyle in an increasingly commercialized and commodified era” as well as to be a form of encouragement for that sort of resistance (101).

A turn to medievalist scholarship reveals that Romero could have made the medieval-inspired knightriders less hierarchical than they appear in the film.  Throughout Knightriders, numerous characters make compelling arguments that Billy’s leadership jeopardizes the well-being and future of the group, yet they all continue to follow him.  They temporarily break apart as Alan takes a vacation and Morgan nearly signs with the promoter to start his own troupe of jousting motorcyclists.  Their only power within the group when they disagree is to leave the group if they resist King Billy’s directives.  Billy, himself, states during a Council Meeting, “If you don’t like it [i.e., my rules], get out.”   The hierarchical Council Meeting recalls kings’ councils in the Middle Ages, but Romero could have chosen another medieval construction of cooperative rule that still functions today: Parliament.  Medieval kings’ councils were, as the name suggests, king-centered in their emphasis (Harriss 38-39).  Often held in a domestic context, kings’ councils centered on supporting the “royal will” or “royal government” (38-39).  Medieval English parliaments of the later Middle Ages retained a degree of independence from the king through their power over taxation (39).  Because they held power over the purse strings, they were able to “provide a critical judgment of government, changing from cooperation to opposition in response to the character of kingship” (39).  This power over finances gave medieval English parliaments “a mechanism for imposing restraint on the king” entirely absent from the Council Meeting in Romero’s Knightriders (Giancarlo 35).  Although the lower social orders of the knightriders’ troupe complain about the financial direction of Billy’s leadership, they allow themselves to be bullied into putting up or shutting up according to the king’s rage.

This identification between the director and his creation impedes Romero’s critical ability to realize a vision of countercultural utopia that transcends the very exploitative relationships between people that he criticizes.  The cult of personality surrounding King Billy, Romero’s stand-in within the film, reflects the cult of personality that surrounds the auteur theory of directing.  Romero’s confused idea of democracy within a monarchical countercultural group originates in his profession as a film director.  Romero gives Billy powers that recall a director’s behavior on a movie set when he fines employees for infractions.  In line with Billy Wilder’s reflection on directing film, Romero ultimately presents a counterculture that recreates the dictatorship of the director on the set of a film: “‘The enigma of filmmaking … is that it is at once a dictatorship and a democracy: the dictatorship of the creator'” (Phillips 16).  As the writer and director of the film, Romero is the auteur, and it is his name that retains control of the authorship function.  This blurring of Billy as king of the knightriders and Romero as director of the film, this blurring of appearance and reality, inhibits Romero’s ability to be critical of the hierarchy that he has created and impedes his capacity to critique cultural trends that he despises.

Contradictions Ignored

The chivalric spectacle works its insidious power through separation masquerading as unity only because its members agree to fit themselves along a hierarchy that benefits the top at the expense of the bottom.   Billy and Romero, unwitting proponents of the concentrated spectacle, have been corrupted by the very process that they try to resist.  Debord explains that people like the knightriders “are corrupted by their experience of contempt, and by the success of that contempt, for the contempt they feel is confirmed by their acquaintanceship with that genuinely contemptible individual—the spectator” (Society 138).  Debord elaborates that the contempt for the spectator, evinced by both Billy and Romero, originates in juxtaposing culture as an example of modern fragmentation in opposition to history.[iii]  Debord describes culture as “the general sphere of knowledge, and of representations of lived experience, within a historical society divided into classes” (130).  Culture is a problem for Debord because a culture of the spectacle has replaced historical thought in its “search for lost unity” (130).  Spectacular capitalist society is characterized by its tautology: when culture is dominated entirely by the commodity, culture itself becomes the “star commodity” (137).  Debord opposes culture to history and suggests that the spectacle’s “function is to bury history in culture” (137).  “Spectacular consumption” of chivalric culture reproduces “the old culture in congealed form” (136).  The lack of critical ability in spectacular consumption makes it possible to “recuperate and rediffuse even its negative manifestations” in the form of totalitarian social hierarchies (136).  Knightriders represents this loss of historical awareness as Romero buries history in the superficial regalia of Arthuriana.  In Knightriders, the various characters’ inarticulate debates over the meaning of the motorized tournaments encapsulates the commodification of their play.

Knightriders charts not only King Billy’s refusal to yield to the forces of commercialism through play, but also his struggle with Morgan over the meaning of the troupe of knightriders.  Romero uses Billy’s and Morgan’s respective relationships to the tournament audiences as a way to instruct the audience of the film in the proper way to live, or as Romero puts it to Dan Yakir, “to tell people ‘they still had a chance'” (Yakir 43).  The “chance” to which Romero refers is the chance to find a meaning in their lives, through play, that transcends commercialism.  Romero juxtaposes the “play” of the knightriders to the intrusiveness and crassness of modern media, such as television and magazines, as well as the gullibility of American audiences.  Like the real audience watching the film in the theater or at home, “the attention of the media makes it hard for [the knightriders] to maintain their code of ethics” because, for Romero, modern media can only offer “lust and greed” (Yakir 42).  The director frames the film so that the knightriders “finally realize they can’t go back to society.  What started as an on-the-road survival tactic has become their own world: through the code, they have rediscovered their conscience'” (42).  For Romero, this “conscience” must include a consciousness of the corrosiveness of capitalism and a willingness to resist it.

Romero goes to great lengths to distinguish between the corrupt mammon of commercial television and the pure, righteous “spiritual fix,” as the mechanic (Christine Forrest) puts it, of the knightriders.  Billy recognizes the threat of commercialism to their troupe brought by the “big-time” promoter and the corresponding television rights to the motorized jousts.  Billy’s idealism juxtaposes Queen Linet’s and the lawyer’s practical concerns with the logistics of financing and managing their so-called play.  Linet observes that they are growing and have an ever-increasing “overhead.”  The lawyer also tries to reason with Billy by suggesting that he take the offer of Silver Bullet Enterprises who want to subsidize the group and put them on television.  As much as he admires the ideals that Billy aspires to live by, the lawyer understands the financial crisis that living under these ideals incurs.  Like Linet, the lawyer reminds Billy of the overhead: “You’re all too broke most of the time. You pick up every long hair that knows how to make a pair of sandals and you want to pick up the Blue Cross tab.  Do you have the slightest idea what gas is selling for, or two-by-fours, or hamburger, or anything else?”  Billy wants to survive in a world that is not determined solely by money, but even his most ardent supporters fear that their countercultural troupe cannot survive without compromising with the promoter’s offer to film their tournaments for television.  Once again, one of Billy’s followers, Bagman (Don Berry), stresses the importance of the group for their communal and individual well-being:

The way I see it is this: you’ve got two separate fights.  One for Truth and Justice and the American Way of Life, but that’s got to take a back seat to the one of staying alive.  Man, you can have the most beautiful ideals in the world, but if you die, then your ideals are going to die with you.  The important thing is we got to stick together.  We got to keep this group together.  Now if keeping the troupe going means we have to take some of their money, then I say let’s take it and get some sleep.

Billy mulls it over and disagrees: “There are not two different fights.  There can’t be two different fights.  You’ve got to fight for your ideals.  And if you die, your ideals don’t die. The Code that we’re living by is the Truth.  Truth is our code.  I can’t let people walk out on that idea.”

For Billy, the “Code” of the knightriders gives life a meaning that it would not have otherwise, but he refuses to acknowledge that his countercultural group participates in the very capitalist and puerilistic enterprise of money-making that he abhors.  Billy proclaims that one has to fight for one’s ideals and never yield, but his fervently emotional epiphany does not transfer into any sort of “quest for the critical truth of the spectacle” that Debord suggests is necessary during battle with the society of the spectacle (Society 154).  Billy’s “living” Arthurian Code transposed into the modern day United States is his attempt, to quote Huizinga, to retain “honor, all sense of humor, the very idea of decency[,] and fair play” (205).  Romero wants to lead the audience to recognize that modern society should be based on a “social order” that encourages “the quest for self-realization” and “fulfillment” (Yakir 43).  Billy believes that the Code of the knightriders points to a way to rediscover one’s conscience, yet the iconic signification of the Middle Ages flounders in tautology because of its ahistoricity.  Billy’s underdeveloped ideals never move beyond passionate dislike, which hinders his ability to understand the economic realities that allow the knightriders to continue.

The knightrider’s motto “Fight or Yield” accords with Debord’s polemical Society of the Spectacle.  Debord offers a pertinent reminder that a revolutionary must critique the past to change the present (Debord, Society 85).  Apart from the superficial transposition of motorcycles for horses, Romero displays little evidence of interrogating medieval history.  He evokes medieval fantasies learned from films, but he forgets that the story of Camelot ultimately ends in failure.  The spectacle’s distortion of history and the reiteration of social hierarchies based on separation through access to finance and power need to be studied to avoid their repetition (88-89).  Debord offers a lesson lost on Romero: a “revolutionary organization cannot allow the conditions of division and hierarchy that obtain in the dominant society to be reproduced within itself.  It must also fight constantly against its own distortion by and within the reigning spectacle” (88-89).  Romero aspires to raise the consciousness of his audience that they “still have a chance,” but there can be no “consciousness” without a sense of history (98).  The “possessors” of history are the ones who “g[i]ve it an orientation—a direction, and also a meaning” (96).  The chivalric spectacle of the Knightriders merely reproduces the very structures of exploitation that Romero sets out to denounce.

Ultimately, the ending of Knightriders contradicts Romero’s stated purpose of reinvigorating a sense of the utility of countercultural activity as an oppositional critique of the diffuse spectacle of American media.  All of these confusions with respect to whether the knightriders are real or just a show, play or puerile, culminate in the end when Billy relinquishes the crown and goes on his own personal, individualist quest of revenge against the policeman who abused his idealistic friend Bagman.  Romero’s discussion of the importance of countercultural collective action, which has influenced film scholars so greatly, falls apart completely when Billy leaves the membership of the knightriders to fight on his own.  Billy’s quest for revenge occurs less as an idealistic attempt to correct an injustice and more as an act of a vigilante.  Romero presents Billy’s pugilistic revenge against the corrupt policeman as an ethical and moral stand for his ideals against a gross injustice, yet the knightriders, who have hitherto been presented as avatars of Billy’s Code, do not participate.

I am not at all approving or condoning any form of violence, but within the logic of the film, Romero has cordoned off the play world of the knightrider’s countercultural lifestyle from the reality of Billy’s fight for his ideals.  Romero invokes chivalric imagery to symbolize his desire to fight against “the dragon of commercialism,” yet he ignores his own reference.  In addition to its association with romance, chivalry provides a code of conduct for socially sanctioned violence.  Tournaments functioned as practice for war and not just sporting events for pleasure.  A turn to a fourteenth-century handbook on chivalry illustrates Romero’s misunderstanding of the chivalry that he invokes.  In the Livre de chevalerie/Book of Chivalry (c. early 1350s), the French knight Geoffroi de Charny (1300?-1356) distinguishes between “peacetime activities” (fais d’armes de pays) and men who actually go to war (86-87).  Geoffroi values men-at-war more than jousting at festivities or tournaments because of the concomitant increase in skill that one acquires (88-89).  Geoffroi observes: “[O]ne should value and honor men-at arms engaged in war more highly than any other men-at arms; for in the practice of arms in jousts some are pleased enough with what they do without undertaking any other deeds of arms” (89).[iv]  I want to reiterate that I am not suggesting that “martial violence,” to use Susan Aronstein’s phrase, is an acceptable way to fight for one’s ideals, but Romero’s film is explicit in word and deed that “martial violence” is an acceptable response to an encroachment upon one’s ideals.  Romero ostensibly admires the morality and ethics of chivalry, yet his refusal to allow the knightriders the “real” honor of war with the corrupt policeman neutralizes any sort of transformative value that their countercultural play can accomplish.


Like Debord, Romero’s knightriders attempt to imagine an ideal society that is not based on the commodification of every aspect of life.  Romero’s society of the chivalric spectacle, ultimately reproduces the very spectacle that he tries and fails to critique effectively.  For Romero, the Arthurian trappings of Knightriders represent an alternative to the rampant consumerism and shallow media intrusions that pervade contemporary American life, but his ignorance of history means that his critique “is misunderstood and forgotten to the benefit of the spectacle’s false memory” (Society 114).  The ending of the film pictures the knightriders on the road with the implication that they will continue as a counterculture separate from the corruption of capitalist American society.  The film never resolves the “serf’s” valid criticism on how to maintain the tournaments financially.  Behind the sentimentalism of the ending lurks the material problem of financing the costs of repairing and fueling the motorcycles and trucks as well as the sustenance of the troupe’s members.  Though the final motorized joust occurs within the group and without an audience, the film offers no rationale on how the chivalric spectacle can continue without the financial support of the spectators.   In abandoning history in his critique, Romero’s polemic never truly engages with its object of hatred, crass commercialism.  Romero’s central metaphor for his fight against the destructiveness of spectacular capitalism, the chivalric knight on a motorcycle, is denied the very confrontation that the film encourages.  In the end, the knightriders “yield” without ever realizing that they have lost their fight against Romero’s “dragon of commercialism.”


[i] Debord’s association with the Situationist International in the fifties was saturated explicitly in the influence of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.  The Situationists “radicalized Huizinga’s theory of play into a revolutionary ethics that effectively abolished any distinction between play and seriousness, or between art and everyday life” (Andreotti 38).  In the Situationist International journal Potlatch, whose name is derived from a passage in Homo Ludens, Debord praised Huizinga and “affirmed play as ‘the only field, fraudulently restrained by the taboos in durable pretension, of real life’. [. . .]  ‘It is a question now of converting the rules of play from an arbitrary convention into a moral foundation'” (Merrifield 139).  The play of Homo Ludens does not appear as prominently in The Society of the Spectacle as it does in Debord’s “work” with the Situationists, but Debord objects to the inability of spectacular capitalist society to “arouse truly playful feelings” (40; Debord’s emphasis).

[ii] Georg Lukác’s History and Class Consciousness influenced Debord’s Society of the Spectacle more than any other text (Jappe 4).  Both theorists aspire to develop Marx’s ideas on the fetishism of commodities (4).  Debord also develops Lukác’s ideas on theory and separation as they appeared in The Theory of the Novel.

[iii] For an explicit example of Romero’s contempt for movie audiences, see Hanners and Kloman’s “‘The McDonaldization of America’: An Interview with George A. Romero, in particular page 79.

[iv] The original French text states, “Et pour ce doit l’en prisier plus et honorer gens d’armes pour la guerre que nulles autres gens d’armes qui soient; car pour le fait d’armes de joustes, li aucun se tiennent a paiez de ce qu’ilz en font sanz autres faiz d’armes faire” (Geoffroi 88).


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Aronstein, Susan.  Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.  Print.

Asahina, Robert.  “Knights Errant.”  New Leader 67.9 (4 May 1981): 17-18.  Print.

Debord, Guy.  Comments on the Society of the Spectacle.  1988.  Trans. Malcolm Imrie. London: Verso, 1990.  Print.

—.  The Society of the Spectacle.  1967.  Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith.  New York: Zone Books, 1994.  Print.

Geoffroi de Charny.  The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: Text, Context, and Translation.  Trans. and eds. Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996.  Print.

Giancarlo, Matthew.  Parliament and Literature in Late Medieval England.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.  Print.

Hanners, John and Harry Kloman.  “‘The McDonaldization of America’: An Interview with George A. Romero.”  Film Criticism 6.1 (1982): 69-81.  Print.

Harriss, Gerald.  “Political Society and the Growth of Government in Late Medieval England.” Past & Present 138 (1993): 28-57.  Print.

Harty, Kevin J.  “Cinematic American Camelots Lost and Found: The Film Versions of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and George Romero’s Knightriders.”  Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays.  Rev. Ed.  Ed. Kevin J. Harty.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.  Print.

Huizinga, Johan.  Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.  Trans. R. F. C Hull. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1949.  Print.

Jappe, Anselm.  Guy Debord.  1993.  Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.  Print.

Merrifield, Andy.  Guy Debord.  London: Reaktion Books, 2005.  Print.

Phillips, Gene D.  Exiles in Hollywood: Major European Film Directors in America.  Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1998.  13-19.  Print.

Romero, George A., dir.  Knightriders.  Perf. Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Tom Savini, and Amy Ingersoll.  1981.  DVD.  Anchor Bay, 2000.

—.  “DVD Commentary” to Knightriders.  Dir. George A. Romero.  Perf. Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Tom Savini, and Amy Ingersoll.  1981.  DVD.  Anchor Bay, 2000.

Sikov, Ed.  Rev. of Knightriders, dir. George A. Romero.  Cineaste 11.3 (1981): 31-33.  Print.

Sutton, Martin.  Rev. of Knightriders, dir. George A. Romero.  Films & Filming 334 (July 1982): 38.  Print.

Tony Williams.  The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead.  New York: Wallflower Press, 2003.  Print.

Yakir, Dan.  “Knight after Night with George Romero.”  American Film 6.7 (1981): 42 +.  Print.