The Bright Side of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian at 40

As Monty Python’s heretical hit returns to cinemas for its 40th anniversary, we look back at a quintessential Easter comedy.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

There aren’t a whole lot of Easter movies. It would be odd if there was, really. Sitting somewhere in between kids’ films like Hop or the Easter Bunny bits of Rise Of The Guardians, and more violent fare like Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ and the far more emotionally gruelling John Michael McDonagh film Calvary, (or ‘The Passion Of The Brendan Gleeson’) your best bet is Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, which is back in cinemas for its 40th anniversary.

For those who’ve never seen it, the film stars Graham Chapman as a man called Brian Cohen, who was once a teenager called Brian, and a boy called Brian, and so on. Born on Christmas Day in the manger next door to Jesus Christ, Brian is mistaken for the messiah from very early on, with characters played the other Pythons coming to either worship him or flagellate him throughout the film.

As long as the film has been around, it’s been called blasphemous, but it’s not. By constantly distinguishing Brian from Christ and levelling all mockery at the various denominations that instantly spring up around him, it’s more heretical. It’s important to know the difference, especially when Christians still seem to be more fussed about it than Himself indoors.

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But as we go into the long weekend, there’s more than enough reason to see the re-release in cinemas, or dig it out on disc, or even stream. In a field that’s largely uncontested, Life Of Brian holds up as well as it ever did.

further reading: The Best Comedy Movies on Netflix

It was probably never meant to be so timeless, but what it has over other, biblical or non-biblical Easter films is a keen sense of political satire, an evergreen strand of absurd comedy, and at least one stone-cold classic song at the end. Let’s take a look on the bright side of the Pythons’ most controversial film…

The new New Testament

The new New Testament

The germ of Life Of Brian was born when Eric Idle got fed up with people asking what the Flying Circus lads were going to do next after the success of Monty Python And The Holy Grail and snapped back that they were going to make a film called Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory.

He was kidding, but the Pythons were tickled by the idea of following up an Arthurian movie with a piss-take of biblical epics but decided that they couldn’t really find anything to mock in Christ’s teachings. Jesus, they decided, was “definitely a good guy.”

They started writing the script in 1976, with the bulk of work being completed during a two-week working holiday in Barbados, and got it ready to shoot by 1978. After creating Brian, the writers had toyed with making him the 13th of Jesus’ 12 disciples but ultimately decided to frame him as the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, who definitely doesn’t want to be as famous as Christ.

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Production was set to start in late 1978, but disaster struck when the film’s backers actually decided to read the script. EMI Films CEO Bernard Delfont (the theatrical manager who was immortalised on screen by Rufus Jones in this year’s Stan & Ollie) got cold feet about the film’s religious content and pulled the plug two days before the crew was due to set off for Tunisia, where the sets had been built in the same town as Franco Zeffirelli had shot the miniseries Jesus Of Nazareth.

It was George Harrison, formerly of the band that another of its members proclaimed to be “bigger than Christ,” who stepped in and saved the film. After Idle rang him up to ask for help, Harrison consulted his American business manager Denis O’Brien and the two of them agreed to remortgage their mansion and their London offices, respectively, in order to cover the $3 million shortfall in Brian‘s budget.

In the process, the musician formed HandMade Films, which continued to fund future classic British films, including The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits and Withnail & I throughout the following decade. For his troubles though, Harrison was given a cameo role as Mr Papadopoulos, who’s pictured above with Idle and John Cleese.

As Michael Palin told The Empire Podcast in March, the bonafide best Beatle’s own reason for funding the film was this: “Well you know… I just wanted to see it.”

In the same interview, Palin says that he holds Life Of Brian to be the best Python film. Although Holy Grail has its die-hard fans, he’s right that it’s probably the film that hangs together best as a film, despite being as all over the place and sketch-driven as any of their other cinematic outings.

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Not the Messiah

Not the Messiah

From the very beginning, in which the Nativity story is diverted into a bit where the wise men turn up at the wrong manger, the film starts with the familiar sketchy structure. Only loosely connected by characters and setting, it’s one of many scenes early on that play as capsules, including one scene in a proper alien capsule that briefly takes Brian into the midst of a Star Wars-like outer space dogfight before dropping him back in it.

But when the film gets into its second half and starts bringing everything together, the result is almost unimprovable. Personally speaking, it’s taken me until my most recent repeat viewing to notice that the only other character obviously played by Chapman in the film is Biggus Dickus, the Roman centurion who Brian claims is his father. That’s the kind of payoff that packs out the latter half of the film.

further reading: The Best Comedy Movies on Amazon Prime

Beyond the usual notable quotables (altogether now, “He’s not the Messiah…”), it’s the film’s social satire that makes it so rewatchable so many years later. First and foremost, it’s almost impossible not to see the “splitters” of 1970s left-wing politics resurfacing in current affairs, with rampant segmentation of views carrying on opposite the open goal of a hugely unpopular government.

The Romans here are pretty ridiculous, too. Even before you get to Palin’s Pilate ordering “cwucifixions,” there’s Cleese’s centurion of the yard teaching Brian to conjugate his Latin graffiti properly. For comedy fans who never studied Latin, the difference between “People called Romanes they go the house” and “Romans, go home” is now hilariously obvious.

But it’s the denominational side of things that quickly becomes the film’s central thread, testing the limits of daft, blind faith by giving Brian a crowd of worshipful hangers-on, asking him how they should fuck off, or praising his shoeless left foot, or worshipping his free gourd.

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When it all ends up with Brian on a cross, as was the fashion at the time, it’s about the failure of either his devoted followers or his squabbling comrades to prevent his fate. While Christ’s life is never the nub of the film’s parody, it provides the template for them to skewer every other target in sight.

The internecine arguing of the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea was initially given more context by the inclusion of JPF leader Otto, a revolutionary who covered himself in Nazi iconography. The character’s role was cut down to the one bit where he leads a suicide squad (not that one) to rescue Brian, after it was felt his scenes slowed down the film.

However, both Idle and Palin have since expressed misgivings about that character, and it’s not the only aspect of the film that doesn’t really hold up nowadays. There’s a glaringly redundant bit where Cleese is the only one of the wise men wearing blackface and some have criticised a running gag in which Idle’s PFJ member Loretta wants to become a woman and have babies.

But aside from those bits, there are far, far more dated comedies from the same era, and Brian largely thrives on transplanting its comedic targets into the structure of a historical or biblical epic, complete with references to Spartacus and Jesus Of Nazareth. What could go wrong?

Life of Brian

“So funny it was banned in Norway”

At the time of Life Of Brian‘s release in 1979, accusations of blasphemy were no trifling matter. Although the film’s heretical content wasn’t anywhere near strong enough to constitute a statutory offence under the UK’s archaic blasphemy laws, it was taken seriously by moral watchdogs like Mary Whitehouse and the Christian organisation Festival of Light.

Such was the controversy around the film, various town councils across the UK exercised their right to ban the film, including some councils that didn’t even have cinemas in their jurisdiction. Internationally, the film was banned from screening in Ireland and Norway for a time, with the latter decision prompting distributors in Sweden to promote its release to domestic audiences as “The film so funny, it was banned in Norway.”

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As later lampooned in Father Ted (“Down with this sort of thing!”), the efforts of Whitehouse and other pamphleteers and picketers were seen to give the film extra publicity. Their bugbears with the film ranged from the trivialization of crucifixion to simply not getting that Brian and Christ were different characters.

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This confusion was magnificently displayed in a now iconic edition of the topical show Friday Night, Saturday Morning, which saw Cleese and Palin debate born-again Christian writer Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark about the content of their film.

Ironically, it’s the religious figures who put forth a bad faith argument, with Cleese slowly but surely demolishing every criticism levelled at them. The debate, which was the subject of BBC Four’s 2011 TV drama Holy Flying Circus in 2011, peaks when Cleese points out that blasphemy no longer carries the death penalty.

“400 years ago, we would have been burnt for this film,” Cleese argues. “Now, I’m suggesting that we’ve made an advance.”

Going into the 21st century, attitudes have indeed relaxed a bit. Where TV broadcasters wouldn’t touch the film for many years because of its reputation, it was eventually screened on BBC Two and then, as part of a night dedicated to the film’s legacy, on Channel 4. Heck, only a decade ago, Torbay Council finally lifted its 30-year ban on screenings of the film.

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While a certain kind of comedy fan constantly trumpets that “they wouldn’t make that film these days”, it’s hard not to see the influence of Brian on films like Armando Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin, a historical satire which also starred Palin, or more relevantly, Chris Morris’ Four Lions, which may be as close to a 21st century Brian as we’ll ever see.

Start whistling, everybody

Finally, the one regard in which Life Of Brian inarguably improves upon Holy Grail is its ending. Although the other Pythons weren’t particularly impressed by Idle’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life when he first performed it for them during pre-production, the key was adding the chirpy tones of Mr Cheeky, the fellow criminal who tries to cheer Brian up during the iconic crucifixion scene.

It’s that performance which transforms the song from a quite odd thing to sing while suspended from a wooden cross to an irresistibly optimistic anthem in the face of terminal odds. It’s been borrowed by everyone from football fans, who chant it on the terraces, to Iron Maiden, who close every show by playing the tune over the PA.

Outside of the film, the song had a resurgence in the 1990s when Simon Mayo started playing it on his radio show. The subsequent single release reached number 3 in the UK singles chart, during the summer of Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It For You).” It did, however, reach the top spot in Ireland, where the film had originally been banned until 1987. 

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On top of that, Adams didn’t get to perform his one as part of the London 2012 Olympic closing ceremony, where Idle appeared amid a typically chaotic bit of choreography to cement the song’s rightful place in British cultural history.

So powerful is its ability to put a smile on your face, the finale could reasonably stake its claim as the greatest comedy movie ending of all time. Even if you don’t feel that certain parts of the film hold up or the disorganisation of activists in the face of blatantly daft authorities feels just a little too timely, it’s this number that the film leaves you with.

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Ultimately, it’s that last impression of this irreverent, ground-breaking comedy that has endured for the last 40 years. But apart from its acerbic social satire, its quotable lines, its surreal sense of humour, its cracking comedic performances, and the fact that we got HandMade Films out of it, it’s plain to see what Life Of Brian has done for us.