Looking back at Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Paul salutes an old favourite and asks why Monty Python and the Holy Grail is often regarded as The Life of Brian's poor relation

This is the oath of a Knight of King Arthur’s Round Table and should be for all of us to take to heart. I will develop my life for the greater good. I will place character above riches, and concern for others above personal wealth, I will never boast, but cherish humility instead, I will speak the truth at all times, and forever keep my word, I will defend those who cannot defend themselves, I will honor and respect women, and refute sexism in all its guises, I will uphold justice by being fair to all, I will be faithful in love and loyal in friendship, I will abhor scandals and gossip-neither partake nor delight in them, I will be generous to the poor and to those who need help, I will forgive when asked, that my own mistakes will be forgiven, I will live my life with courtesy and honor from this day forward.” 

King ArthurLe Morte d’Arthur: King Arthur & the Legends of the Round Table

“Run away!”

– King Arthur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

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Over the trailer for the 2001 re-release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a recognizably squawky Terry Jones, in character as one of the ‘pepperpots’ that were so familiar in the Python films and TV shows, shouts: “I prefer Life of Brian!” before being quickly shushed by an irritated announcer.

It’s probably just a throwaway bit of typically self-referential Python humour, but there’s also could be a bit more to it – Life of Brian really does seem to have superseded Holy Grail as the thinking Python fan’s film of choice in recent years.

It would be ludicrous to say that Holy Grail is somehow underrated, or underappreciated – its status as one of the most beloved comedy films of all time is unlikely to ever be in doubt, as long as there are nerdy adolescent boys with a fondness for reciting funny dialogue – but its cultural cachet seems to have slipped a bit behind Brian in recent years, and contrary to what you might think it’s not solely because of the corrosive effect of risible West End cash-in Spamalot (although it doesn’t help).

The line is that Life of Brian is more worthy, more dangerous than Holy Grail, and on the surface that’s hard to argue with – the dangers of unchecked obedience to religious dogma is a much more noble and tricky subject to satirise than the legend of King Arthur, undoubtedly, and widely reported pickets outside cinema, bans from city councils, and the infamous televised debate on Brian’s supposed blasphemy between Palin, Cleese, the Archbishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge elevated the film to a level of infamy in Britain that none of the other Python films have reached (Holy Grail remains the most popular Python film in America, however, as Life of Brian’s scathing criticism of organised religion all but guaranteed it a limited release in a country not exactly know for its sensitivity to such issues).

But the idea that Holy Grail is somehow the ‘safe’ Python film is disingenuous – in its own way, it’s just as revolutionary as Brian is. There’s symmetry here: whereas Brian presents the idea of being told how to live your life as something to be treated with contempt, in Holy Grail the Pythons treat the idea of being told how to make (and, to an extent, watch) a movie with equal scorn. It’s a 90-minute assault on film-making convention, genuinely irreverent in a way that still has few equals.

The common criticism of Holy Grail (including by the Pythons themselves) is that it’s just a collection of sketches strung together, and that’s to all intents and purposes true. But why should this neccessarily be a criticism? Monty Python team were the Beatles of sketch comedy (even George Harrison thought so), so these are some of the best sketches you’ll ever see; what’s more, the often bizarre and awkward transitions between sketches were, far from being a negative, one of the funniest and interesting aspects of Python.

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Mostly eschewing traditional punchlines or narrative progression, scenes are often linked, as they were in the television show, by Terry Gilliam’s incredibly bizarre and imaginative stream-of-consciousness animation. These interludes, including the sun and clouds being told off for bouncing on the horizon (“bloody weather”), and self-flagellating monks lining up to swan dive into a swimming pool.

Another trademark in the television series was the combination of high-brow influences with low-brow humour, and Holy Grail takes this approach to its logical cinematic extension, with the avant-garde film-making techniques popularized by the like of Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel being employed to service jokes about farting Frenchmen and killer rabbits.

The anachronisms come dizzyingly thick and fast, there are sudden lurches between animation and live-action (at one point an animated chase sequence stops because Gilliam has a heart attack), scenes are built up endlessly then abandoned before they begin, and the fourth wall is broken so many times there is scarcely time to rebuild it.  There were predecessors to this kind of screen anarchy in Looney Tunes cartoons and the films of the Marx Brothers, but Holy Grail goes into areas where even those comedy pioneers would have baulked.

For example, it’s sometimes easy to forget how ludicrously violent it is. Limbs are hacked off, throats are slashed, and people are decapitated, all usually accompanied by thick arterial sprays of bright red Kensington gore. The Pythons had used gory violence for comedic purposes in the sketch ‘Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days’, but the device got its biggest audience yet in Holy Grail.

It’s not stretching things too far to suggest that you can trace the genesis of ‘splatter-comedy’ back to the famous ‘Black Knight’ sequence, a scene of horrific, graphic dismemberment that is comfortably one of the funniest moments in a film full of them– you can imagine the likes of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson taking notes while watching.

Terry Gilliam recounts that when this scene played in front of a liberal, Python-loving audience in New York, it was met at first with shocked silence – in 1974 at the height of the Vietnam war and anti-violence protesting on US soil, this gleeful goriness was completely out of kilter with the mood of most of those watching.

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As the scene progressed, the audience eventually began come round to the funny side, as it became apparent that violence itself was being presented as inherently ludicrous and a subject of ridicule, as opposed to its effects or victims being the butt of the joke. It’s a theme the Pythons return to again later in the film when a misunderstanding leads to Sir Lancelot’s enthusiastic slaughter of a castle full of wedding revelers.

The use of violence just adds to a grimy, opressive atmosphere that the film has throughout, and the film turns its low-budget into an advantage, with some scenes looking genuinely pestilential. Denis O’Brien, producer of Withnail & I, once admonished Bruce Robinson for the dank look of that film, claiming that comedy only works if it’s brightly lit – well, this film and Withnail are Exhibits A and B in the case for the defense of dingy comedy.

Some of the film’s more visually striking setpieces (such as the ‘bring out your dead’ plague sequence) were set up by Terry Gilliam, who co-directed the film alongside fellow Python Terry Jones. This arrangement was never repeated again, with Jones taking sole director credit for all the subsequent films. This was largely due to what the other Pythons saw as an unnecessary emphasis on the visual style of the film from Gilliam, which they felt was to the detriment of the writing and performance.

As a performer himself, Jones was more sympathetic to this side of directing, whereas Gilliam was almost totally focused on the ‘look’ of the film. Jones proved in the other Python films that he’s no slouch visually, but Gilliam went on to establish himself in a career as one of one of cinema’s great imaginations, and Holy Grail definitely benefits from his directorial input.

It’s possibly the most visually interesting Python film, despite the low budget – Jones and Gilliam often use unusual camera angles, heightening the surreal atmosphere; the set and costume design is fantastic; and it features some of the most unforgettable images and iconography in all comedy film with the likes of Holy Hand Grenade, The Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, Tim the Conqueror, and the Bridge of Death.

Gilliam went on to launch his film career with the similarly grubby Jabberwocky, a film with a more traditional story told with much more of Gilliam’s characteristic visual panache, but it failed to capture the imaginations of critics and audiences in the same way as Holy Grail. Ultimately, the reason Holy Grail will be a film revisited and adored for years to come is down to the phenomenal talent and, crucially, unique chemistry shared by the Pythons.

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For Holy Grail the team put together a script that has few rivals in terms of quotability – in fact, the ubiquity of the quoting has become something of a joke itself, and has become synonymous with a certain type of nerd-dom (perhaps best exemplified by Homer’s geeky pals in Simpsons episode ‘Homer Goes to College’: “If there’s one thing we know, it’s science.” “And math.” “And the words to every Monty Python routine.”).

Lines and references to the film have found there way into dozens of movies, television shows, and video games over the years – there’s a reference to Holy Grail in seemingly every other episode of another nerd favourite, Mystery Science Theater 3000.

You would think that Holy Grail would be trying to actually watch now; such is its overbearing familiarity. But the film is still as funny and engaging as ever, something it owes to the tremendous charisma and comedic ability of the Python performers. They play off each other perfectly: Palin and Terry Jones offer their consistent high energy and total commitment, Eric Idle brings cheeky charm, and John Cleese has his unique brand of pomposity with a side of simmering, barely contained rage.

Special mention should go to the late Graham Chapman, who was capable of spectacular weirdness in the TV series yet was cast as the straight man in both this and Brian, perhaps due ability to exasperate while maintaining a quiet dignity. His King Arthur is delightful, and his great performance is even more impressive when considering that it took place during one of his worst periods of alcoholism.

I suspect like many others I discovered Holy Grail at an early age, and it’s a film that I was obsessed by for a not insignificant period – as a result, I approached viewing it again with a certain degree of trepidation.

Whenever revisiting a film that you loved in your youth there’s always the fear that nostalgia has clouded your brain to the point that you remember it being much better than it really is.  Also, as you get older, your critical faculties should technically change and evolve – what you consider to be a good film in your childhood or teens isn’t necessarily the same when you’re an ‘adult’.

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With comedies, however, it’s slightly easier to judge, as there’s only one question that needs answering: is it still funny, yes or no?

I’m happy to say that in the case of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the answer’s a resounding, “Ni.”

A new edition of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is out now on Blu-ray.

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